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Journal of Bisexuality

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“Bisexuality Is Just Semantics…”: Young Bisexual

Women's Experiences in New Zealand Secondary

Mary-Anne McAllum

To cite this article: Mary-Anne McAllum (2014) “Bisexuality Is Just Semantics…”: Young Bisexual
Women's Experiences in New Zealand Secondary Schools, Journal of Bisexuality, 14:1, 75-93,
DOI: 10.1080/15299716.2014.872467

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/15299716.2014.872467

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Published online: 28 Feb 2014.

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Journal of Bisexuality, 14:75–93, 2014
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1529-9716 print / 1529-9724 online
DOI: 10.1080/15299716.2014.872467

“Bisexuality Is Just Semantics. . .”:

Young Bisexual Women’s Experiences
in New Zealand Secondary Schools

University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

A literature search reveals minimal New Zealand and interna-

tional research that has a specific focus on young bisexual women
at school. This study addresses this paucity by gathering the expe-
riences of young bisexual women being bisexual at a secondary
school in New Zealand. The study focuses on ways in which young
bisexual women experience teacher and student attitudes and prac-
tices at school, and the consequent negotiation of their own bisexual
identities within their school environments. Evidence from these
experiences frames two specific practices, the first being societal
misrecognition of the nature of bisexuality. The second practice
introduces the notion of bi-misogyny, a form of erasure specifically
targeting young bisexual women. The study engages with bisexual
theory and feminist qualitative methodology. Data are examined
using thematic analysis. Consideration of young bisexual women’s
experiences in New Zealand secondary schools adds to the body of
knowledge about this silenced minority.

KEYWORDS young bisexual women, bisexual identity, misrecog-

nition, bi-misogyny, erasure

My research question is bi-focal: it asks how young bisexual women interpret

the notion of bisexuality, and how their bisexual identity influences their
experiences as young bisexual women at secondary school in New Zealand.
The title of this project is a direct quote from a participant in this study: it
was a teacher’s response to a participant’s question regarding the invisibility
of bisexuality in her school sexuality education program. In my many years

Address correspondence to Mary-Anne McAllum, School of Critical Studies in Education,

Faculty of Education, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92601, Symonds Street, Auckland,
1150, New Zealand. E-mail: m.mcallum@auckland.ac.nz

76 Journal of Bisexuality

as a secondary school teacher I have witnessed such responses to ques-

tions asked by young people seeking validation of their sexual identity. The
above quote exemplifies heteronormative practices found in New Zealand
secondary schools, practices that not only privilege heterosexuality above
all other identities but also successfully erase the possibility of bisexuality.
The project examines the notion of bisexuality as interpreted by the young
bisexual female participants in this study, and their experiences as bisexual
students in New Zealand secondary schools. This project endeavors to add
to the literature by providing new knowledge and information about ways in
which young bisexual women experience their identity and by highlighting,
through data, evidence of bisexual erasure in the contexts of school safety
and sexuality education in New Zealand secondary schools.
What does the literature tell us? Recent years have seen an increase
in research and writing about bisexuality, viewed as a credible political
stance and as evolving its own theoretical frameworks. Academic research
ranges from bisexual credibility (Angelides, 2001; Barker, Richards, & Bowes-
Catton, 2009; Baumgardner, 2007), to identity development (Diamond, 2008;
Knous, 2005; McLean, 2001; Rust, 1992, 2000), and to societal perception
(Israel & Mohr, 2004), yet this research focuses mostly on adult bisexual-
ity (Firestein, 1996; McLean, 2003; Zaylia, 2009). Some research examines
the validity and stability of adolescent bisexual identity (Diamond, 2008)
though young bisexual males (Fenaughty, 2000; Savin-Williams, 2005) and
bisexual youth as a group (Hutchins, 2006; Kangasvuo, 2003; McLean, 2001;
Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2005, 2010; Pallotta-Chiarolli & Martin, 2009; Saewyc et al.,
2009). However, there is little research with a sole focus on young bisexual
women (Fahs, 2009; Russell & Seif, 2002; Thompson, 2006). Indeed, research
on young bisexual women and their schooling experiences appears to be
Some research methods preclude the gathering of accurate data on
young bisexual women. For example, some studies consider only two cat-
egories of sexuality, heterosexual and nonheterosexual; all nonheterosexual
sexualities including sexual minority youth are lumped together as Other
(Russell & Seif, 2002; Rust, 2000). This lumping creates a homogenous group,
disallowing differentiation between sexual identities and masking possible
in-group differences such as the tension which occurs between some young
lesbians and young bisexual women (Lock & Steiner, 1999; Russell, Seif, &
Truong, 2001). Some studies consider gay and lesbian identities but neglect
bisexuality (Carr, 2011). In his History of Bisexuality, Angelides (2001) sug-
gests that “bisexuality continues . . . to represent a blind spot in sex research”
(p. 2). Many existing studies may include the term ‘bisexual’ in their titles,
then combine lesbian and bisexual women as one group in the statistical
analyses (Broome, 2005; Ellis & High, 2004; Locke & Steiner, 1999; Murdock
& Bolch, 2005). This practice fails to acknowledge the different issues faced
by young bisexual women compared to lesbian women (Heldke, 1997).
M. McAllum 77

The homogenizing practice suggests young bisexual women have the same
needs, thoughts, and feelings as do young lesbian women; subsequently,
bisexuality as a valid identity is subsumed and erased from much academic
literature (Yoshino, 2000).
One reason for this erasure from the literature may be due to misrecog-
nition of what constitutes bisexual identity. According to Angelides (2001),
bisexuality has been consistently described as “a form of immaturity, a tran-
sitional phase, a self-delusion or state of confusion, a personal and political
cop-out, a marketing tool and even a superficial fashion trend” (p. 1). Bisex-
uality’s legitimacy as a sexual identity has been challenged and refuted by
some researchers, by society through popular culture, and by members of
some gay and lesbian communities; however, some bisexual theorists posit
that bisexual identity is “inextricably located within the epistemic matrix of
hetero-homo” (Gurevich, Bailey, & Bower, 2009, p. 237). Gurevich et al.
(2009) suggest that all identities are interdependent, relying on each other
for existence, yet Angelides maintains bisexuality can build and dismantle
hetero- and homosexual categories.
The interdependence among hetero-homo-bi identities also allows
bisexuality to remove itself from that space. This project suggests that bi-
sexuality may operate spatially, establishing itself as an independent entity
occupying its own space. Bisexuality is not just a hybrid shaped from facets
of other identities and assumed to be situated at any point between homo
and hetero (Hemmings, 2002). Neither does bisexuality, with its complex
fluidity, condemn hetero- and homosexuality to a static, colorless existence,
thus creating another binary of fluidity and stability. Truly, if bisexuality
was to be binarized, would its logical partner be asexuality (Storms, 1980)?
Bisexual theory ascribes all sexual identities as existing independently of
each other, with their own characteristics and with features in common with
other sexualities. Bisexual theory suggests bisexuality itself may contain any
number of sexualities, some fluid, changing, evolving, and unstable. As Hal-
berstam (1998) stated, identity is a “process with multiple sites for becoming
and being” (p. 21). Bisexual theory does not deconstruct or reify as do
some other theories of sexuality that deny, omit, and erase bisexuality (du
Plessis, 1996). It functions through a sense of concurrency; acknowledging
bisexuality also acknowledges the instability of the distinction between het-
erosexuality and homosexuality (Eadie, 1993). Therefore, for the purposes
of this study, bisexuality is considered to be an identity that does not rely
solely on sexual preference as a basis for attraction. Neither does it rely on
equal sexual attraction to all sexes. Instead, the research draws on McLean’s
(2003) conceptualization of bisexuality:

Identifying as bisexual . . . comes as a result of evaluating attractions to

men and women and recognising these as bisexual, evaluating and re-
jecting identity labels as inappropriate, and accepting that one does not
78 Journal of Bisexuality

need equal attractions to, and/or experiences, with men and women to
call oneself bisexual. Social, cultural and environmental factors may also
play an important role in the adoption of a bisexual identity. (p. 74)

This project takes a feminist qualitative approach underscored by bisexual
theory. According to Harding (1987) and Gorelick (1991), feminist methodol-
ogy was created as a means of giving women’s voices a chance for represen-
tation that was egalitarian and accurate, and that defied marginalization. More
recently Hesse-Biber (2007) claims there is no single feminist methodology,
rather “multiple feminist lenses” (p. 4). By investigating my participants’
experiences through their “multiple lenses,” this project has been a starting
point for assembling new knowledge about this minority group. Qualitative
data was sought through focus groups, reflective journals, and informal
semistructured individual interviews (Leavy, 2007; Saleh & McBride, 2005;
Simons & Harris, 2002). By using open-ended questions and prompts in
focus groups and individual interviews, and visual prompts in reflective jour-
nals, participants in this study were encouraged to “critically examine (being
bisexual) through their own (school) experiences” (A. Brooks, 2007, p. 61).
Feminist qualitative research methods give voice and life to the histories
of participants that might otherwise have remained silenced. Better (2006)
claims that feminist research methods are seen by some scholars as “serving
the needs of women’s voices” (p. 3). My project views societal misrecog-
nition (Fraser, 1998) as an issue for bisexual women that needs addressing
through investigating women’s experiences and incorporating reflective re-
search. To reiterate, feminist methodology embraces principles of awareness
of oppression in the form of sexism, racism, and heteronormativity. Because
this study’s research methodology involves investigation into misrecogni-
tion and bi-misogyny as experienced by young bisexual women, a feminist
framework seems appropriate. This study provides the participants with a
voice with which to break the silence and erasure they currently experience
at school. Many of them expressed their gratitude at the opportunity to share
their experiences and how they felt about them. Some felt this so strongly
that they refused anonymity, claiming that this added to their empowerment
as bisexual.

Criteria for participation included being between age 16 and 24, being fe-
male, and identifying as bisexual. The ethics application addressed four main
areas: protection of identity, provision of additional support, confidentiality,
and providing a safe space for focus groups and interviews. Data gathering
methods included focus groups, reflective journals, and individual interviews.
M. McAllum 79

TABLE 1 Participant Involvement

Focus Group Reflective Journal Individual Interview

6 groups (23 participants) 25 issued, 14 returned 33

Altogether there were 36 participants from around New Zealand (see Table 1
for details). Sufficient data emerged to support an attempt to weave a picture
of young bisexual women’s New Zealand secondary school experiences, and
their thoughts and feelings on the notion of bisexuality.
An advertisement was created to attract and recruit participants. This was
included in an information pack sent to secondary schools and to community
groups for young people of diverse sexualities, such as Rainbow Youth in
Auckland and groups in other centers. Sixty information packs were mailed
to secondary school principals throughout the North Island (New Zealand)
and in parts of the South Island. Six consent forms and four e-mail responses
were returned. Most replies said “Not today thank you,” offering no reason for
their refusal. One school had accommodated me in earlier research on young
lesbian and bisexual women; this time the principal refused permission. Her
letter also expressly forbade me to contact either the school counsellor or the
health teacher about this study; any reasons for denial of research permission
or contact were withheld. Several schools had ‘out’ gay or lesbian principals.
I sent information packs to these principals, assuming that I would receive
a favorable response in accord with their sexual identity. I had not taken
into account the politics or personal values associated with the position of
school principal, and its subsequent accountabilities to the school’s Board of
Trustees, staff, students, and community. Note to self for future reference: do
not assume that all people of diverse sexualities in positions of responsibility
at school are able to contribute to sexualities research.
Historically, schools have proven difficult to gain access to for sexualities
research. New Zealand secondary schools, where students are typically age
12 to 18, are no different from those in other Western countries where sex
and sexuality are considered ‘sensitive’ subjects (Allen, 2005, 2011; McAl-
lum, 2008; Quinlivan, 1999). Many schools are reluctant to acknowledge
their students as sexual subjects (Allen, 2005), particularly if the research
has a focus on sexualities apart from heterosexuality. Heteronormative?
My postal approach was not a success. What did work was displaying
the advertisement in high-volume traffic areas such as the notice boards at
the University of Auckland library and in other locations on the university’s
campuses. University diversity groups advertised my project, and it received
great support from community out-of-school diversity groups in Auckland
and several other urban centers throughout New Zealand. Prospective partic-
ipants e-mailed me or texted me, or tracked me on Facebook. We arranged
80 Journal of Bisexuality

to meet face-to-face wherever possible. Skype was a useful tool for individual
interviews at a distance.

Data Gathering
Focus groups encouraged collective discussion (Allen, 2005; Frith, 2000)
where participants and researcher interacted with each other, sharing expe-
riences and information (Leavy, 2007; Wilkinson, 1998). Themes discussed
included misrecognition (Fraser, 1998) of bisexuality through popular culture
and society, experiences of being bisexual at school, and school sexuality ed-
ucation. These themes were continued into preprepared reflective journals,
an option offered following the focus groups and preceding the interviews.
The journals provided opportunities to record personal responses to
questions or statements designed to encourage critical thinking, such as
“bisexual is halfway between gay and lesbian.” There was a focus on a
participant’s sense of being bisexual, and on experiences she may have had
at school. Boud (2001) suggests journaling may be a way of recording events,
expressing oneself or a type of therapy. Participant responses came through
personal writing, diagrams, quotes, poems, song lyrics, and drawings.
The interviews provided a space to review and discuss the journal con-
tents. These one-to-one semistructured interviews also offered opportunities
for participants to share experiences and opinions on a more personal level.
Although questions reflected the themes discussed in focus groups, some
participants were able to better express themselves, not needing to compete
with more opinionated and vocal participants. Interviews also provided a
space to express any changes in thoughts or position that may have oc-
curred since journaling or focus group discussion. Focus group prompts and
interview questions are listed in the appendix.
All 36 participants were offered the opportunity to take part in each of
the three data-gathering activities; however, other factors such as timing of
focus groups, university or school assignments, geographical location, and
in some cases international sporting fixtures precluded full commitment. Co-
ordinating meeting times for individual interviews was more straightforward
than for focus groups. Reflective journals were not compulsory; they were
distributed in accordance with participant interest. Table 1 indicates the level
of participation.

Data Analysis
Thematic analysis seemed the most appropriate tool for interpreting the
wide range of data collected. Braun and Clarke (2006) suggest that thematic
analysis may “potentially provide a rich and detailed, yet complex, account of
data” (p. 78). This method may reveal a series of moments from participant
experiences that each relate to a particular concept—for example, ‘being’
M. McAllum 81

bisexual. Thematic analysis organizes and details data themes (‘sets’), each
of which relates to a single idea. Braun and Clarke (2006) suggest that
a theme may be defined as data that “represent some level of patterned
response or meaning within the data set” (p. 82). Themes are determined by
the researcher’s judgement prior to data collection.
This study’s determined themes focused on sexuality education, rela-
tionships at school, experiences of discrimination, and understanding of
bisexuality. These themes translated into specific sets: safety at school as a
young bisexual woman, the content and applicability of school sexuality ed-
ucation, and young bisexual women’s notions of their own bisexual identity.
This article addresses two sets: school safety and sexuality education. The
following participant responses provide snapshots of experiences of school
for some young bisexual women.

Safety at School
Pollyanna (focus group) describes how some male students treated her after
she came out as bisexual:

Mostly boys . . . girls excluded me, boys were really vocal about it, were
really nasty, and you know they asked me if they could pay to watch
me, um hook up with girls, and they’d ask me why, and they thought I
just hadn’t had a good dick, and all sorts of crap like that.

The offer to pay to watch Pollyanna have sex with girls suggests the boys may
have associated her bisexuality with promiscuity and its assumed low lev-
els of moral decency (Garber, 1995). The boys’ assumption that Pollyanna’s
bisexuality could be changed by having “a good dick” reflects heteronor-
mative and hegemonic masculine beliefs that female same-sex attraction can
be ‘cured’ through male–female sexual intercourse (Bordo, 1993; Dworkin,
1987; MacKinnon, 1987; Rich, 1980).
Xena (interview) described how some lesbians at her school reacted to
her being out as bisexual:

And that was the lesbian girls as well, they were like “ew don’t wanna
get jumped by someone who sleeps with anything that moves”. . . . It’s
okay this year so far but like they used to like make it so we couldn’t
like get around them on the path between classes. They’d take Kadee’s
bag and empty it in the bin, they’d like bang into us in the corridor, pull
my hair, no words, just like stuff that wasn’t like big enough to go to a
teacher about?
82 Journal of Bisexuality

Several participants had similar experiences. I use the term ‘bi-misogyny’

to describe this specific discriminative behavior against young bisexual
Xena mentioned feeling unable to “go to a teacher” because she didn’t
think her teachers would take any reparative action, particularly if they had
not directly witnessed the bullying behavior. Other participants concurred,
claiming they had little to no confidence in teacher support even if the
teacher was present during the incident.
Many sexually diverse young people choose to ‘come out’ or make
their sexual identity known to friends, family, and the public. Some young
people are denied that choice, being ‘outed’ by peers. However, I had
never heard of any students being ‘outed’ by teachers until I spoke with

Beena: There was this one teacher, Mrs R. . . . I was sitting in class and
she said “What are you doing your project on” and I was doing it on gay
rights? And she comes up to me, she walks up, and she puts her elbows
on my desk, and she goes “Beena, are you gay?” Like in that exact way,
and everyone in the class heard her, and this was before I was outed,
and so my automatic reaction was “No! No I’m not, whaddya, what, no?”
and I was just really upset about that, that she just asked me in front of
everyone, and everyone’s sitting there laughing, and then she said “How
do you know?” And I said “‘cos I like boys!” but then I like both, so she
was kinda right I guess.
M-A: Well yeah but . . . not in class in front of everyone?
Beena: Yeah to ask me in front of everyone? Cos everyone was quiet so
everybody heard her, yeah.

Beena described her extreme embarrassment. She protested at being called

‘gay’ when she knew she was bisexual but felt powerless to correct the
teacher in front of the class, especially when she thought Mrs. R was ‘kinda
right’ because Beena was attracted to females and males. Upon reflection,
she felt differently about Mrs. R.’s motives, but still thought it was a poor
choice of moment: “I think in her own way she was trying to be helpful
but I just don’t I just don’t appreciate that there were 25 other students that
could hear her” (Beena, interview). The data collected for this study reveal
several examples of teacher binegativity (Elia, 2010), yet none resembles
Beena’s experience in which her teacher appeared to purposely wield power
over Beena (Blackburn & McCready, 2009; Friedman, 2008). The teacher
assumed Beena was gay because she had chosen gay rights as an assignment
topic; however, to publicly ask Beena if she was gay was compromising
Beena’s safety through attempted forced personal disclosure. This action
also invisibilized Beena as bisexual: the teacher assumed she was gay or
M. McAllum 83

The New Zealand Professional Standards: Criteria for Quality Teach-

ing (Ministry of Education, 1999) specifies that classroom teachers will “de-
velop and maintain a positive and safe physical and emotional environment”
(p. 9). Asking Beena if she was gay was unethical and disrespectful. Asking
Beena to publicly declare her sexual identity in front of an eagerly listening
class was a transgression of Beena’s dignity and personal rights (Ministry of
Justice, 2011; New Zealand Post-Primary Teachers Association, 2012). The
teacher did not ask any of the heterosexual students to come out as straight.

Sexuality Education
New Zealand secondary school-based sexuality education is usually taught
to Years 9 and 10 students (age 12–14). Research suggests that many school
sexuality education curricula are heteronormative, providing only opposite-
sex information on contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs),
sometimes including relationship issues and management, and avoiding any
reference to both-sexes attraction and to safe-sex practices relevant to bi-
sexual, lesbian, and gay students (Ellis & High, 2004; Fields, 2008; Formby,
2010; Jackson & Weatherall, 2010; Nixon, 2010). Discussions in focus groups
and in interviews highlighted the erasure of bisexuality from school sexuality

Um I asked the teacher um what about bi, cos they were only teaching
about straight sex, and um what if you’re bi, or gay, or trans, or whatever,
and they were like “oh we don’t need to talk about that, that’s not
necessary,” I was like I didn’t get why they didn’t want to teach that? Cos
not everyone’s straight. (Katie, focus group)

Another participant, Kitty, discussed how her teacher mentioned being gay
or lesbian but when someone in the class asked about bisexuality, he told
the class “that’s just semantics” and changed the subject. The teacher may
have used the term ‘semantics’ to relegate the status of bisexuality to nonim-
portance, and in doing so he altogether erased bisexual presence from the
Participants’ overall recollections were that their sexuality education
was unhelpful and in many ways unsupportive of their needs as young
bisexual women. Although some participants were already aware of their
sexual identity in their first years at high school, others were still questioning.
Their school sexuality education left many of them feeling confused about
bisexuality, as heterosexuality was seen as normal and students felt the
unspoken pressure of heteroconformity.
For many participants, their lasting impressions of their school sexuality
education were of an overarching emphasis on the dangers associated with
sexual activity. Active sexual relationships were depicted as dangerous and
84 Journal of Bisexuality

negative due to a high possibility of contracting an STI or getting pregnant.

This discourse of safety within school sexuality education has been well doc-
umented in research (Allen, 2011; Allen & Elliot, 2008; DePalma & Atkinson,
2009; Diorio, 2006; Ellis & High, 2004; Fields, 2008; Hillier & Mitchell, 2008;
Jackson & Weatherall, 2010) but not in relation to bisexuality.
Yoni (interview) suggested that anything associated with sex and sexu-
ality was depicted as unsafe physically and emotionally, thus presenting an
unbalanced view:

[S]ex and sexuality are only seen in relation to what STIs or when you
get pregnant or you know you’ll get pregnant or you’ll be emotionally
scarred and stuff and it was really negative especially if you were trying
to figure out your sexuality as a queer person, cos you know, I want
some positives out of this but you don’t get that at all, it’s really focused
on what bad things are going to happen to you if you do this.

Yoni felt this unbalanced view was particularly unhelpful to young women
questioning their sexual identity. Some participants felt the heterosexual
aspects were partly useful to them, but there was nothing to prepare them
for managing female/female relationships including sexual activity:

Well I obviously did learn about you know, um, periods and stuff which
I do deal with, and protecting myself when having sex with a guy, which
is very important because they’re the ones that can get you pregnant, so
it was helpful to me, just nothing very helpful for the other side of my
sex life. (Beena, interview)

Participants were invited to make suggestions for improvements to their

school sexuality education programs. Artemis thought more informed dis-
cussion on bisexuality in class might help deflect societal misrecognition:

I just think that the lack of like knowledge in sex ed about bisexuals is
sort of what perpetuates so many like myths and stuff about you know,
like same sex relationships, like how women can’t have sex because
they don’t have penises and they just do this (scissoring with hands) . . .
you know like just be clearly if it was gone over in sex ed. (Artemis,

And Ziggy Stardust’s (focus group) comment sums it up:

I think they [teachers] need to concentrate less on sex, and more on

sexuality, because you have to figure out your sexuality before you’re
going to have sex, well you don’t have to, but I think that’s how it should
work, yeah.
M. McAllum 85

Although participant race and ethnicity varied, the question of culture was
not addressed as a separate issue. The existence of adversities created
through race and religion was not the focus of this study; however, each
participant was viewed in the context of those unique and individual quali-
ties she brought to the research. If culture, race, or religion played a signifi-
cant role in a participants’ identification as bisexual, it was explored as part
of that participant’s journey (L. Brooks, Inman, Klinger, Malouf, & Kaduvet-
toor, 2010). There is great potential for further research to investigate how
ethnicity may affect our findings.
The study was relatively small scale. As did other researchers in the
same subject area (McLean, 2003; Pallotta-Chiarolli & Martin, 2009), I did not
anticipate a large response to the recruitment drive, as many young women
may be reluctant to publicly declare their bisexuality. This reluctance may
stem from a fear of recrimination and exclusion, or a reluctance to be la-
belled (Pallotta-Chiarolli & Martin, 2009; Russell & Seif, 2002; Savin-Williams,
2005). Many New Zealand secondary schools problematize research of this
nature, making access to possible participants difficult and restrictive (McAl-
lum, 2008; Quinlivan, 2006; Smith, 2006). Further research in this area could
consider recruiting participants through public advertising and snowball sam-
pling. The study did not include bisexual males. The focus was solely on
young bisexual women as there is a dearth of knowledge and literature about
this group.


Implicit in feminist methodology is the aim to provide opportunities for par-

ticipants’ personal empowerment (Better, 2006). Also implicit is resistance to
oppression and exploitation via giving participants voice to suggest strate-
gies for improvements. Doing this contributes to a feminist aim of improving
social conditions for women by making situations more equitable (Alice,
2003; Hesse-Biber, 2007). In this project, that voice—the voice of the young
bisexual woman—sounds clearly. Indeed, many participants expressed grati-
tude for the opportunity to share their experiences, claiming that the research
process—which included discussions with other young bisexual women and
the chances to reflect on their bisexual identity—had had a positive effect
on their self-confidence and their understanding of bisexuality. This is not
the case in many New Zealand secondary school environments and sexuality
education programs.
In New Zealand, combining Health and Physical Education into one
curriculum learning area has resulted in many schools employing physi-
cal education teachers with the often unvoiced expectation they can and
will have the skills to teach Health Education, including sexuality education
86 Journal of Bisexuality

(Sinkinson & Burrows, 2011; Weir, 2009). Research (including this project)
reveals student dissatisfaction with this result and adds claims of inadequate
and incorrect information being given regarding a range of topics within
sexuality education (Allen, 2005, 2011; Formby, 2011; McAllum, 2008).
In some schools teachers are also required to negotiate a community’s
strong moral stance, one that claims that sexuality education is a parental
responsibility, and school ‘sex education’ can only incite young people to
promiscuity, deviance, and homosexuality (Education Forum, 1998). In New
Zealand, the Health curriculum includes sexuality education as a Key Area of
Learning, yet a review of school-based sexuality education conducted by the
New Zealand Education Review Office (2007) revealed that 80% of schools
were not including education on sexual diversity in their learning programs.
According to Sinkinson and Burrows (2011), many teachers may be unaware
of student needs, and/or ill equipped to adequately support the developing
sexual identities of students in their classrooms. This may be due to a lack
of preservice training in sexuality education in secondary school Health
Education, or to a lack of available external professional development in
sexuality education for teachers. Unfortunately, this project was not intended
as a resource creation tool for teachers and counsellors.
This study also suggests that some teachers’ personal attitudes may be
obvious outside the classroom, when they might be called upon to deal with
an incident involving prejudice or bullying. A reluctance to become involved
in an area rife with complicated personal and professional challenges may
possibly lead some teachers, already overburdened with the growing ad-
ministrative needs of their profession, to walk away when they see sexual
identity-based antagonism, even if this means disregarding policies requiring
safe and supportive environments for all students and staff in schools.
Some New Zealand secondary schools are beginning to recognize and
actively address the need for a safe space for sexually diverse young peo-
ple. Thanks to a recent national campaign supported by the government
and spearheaded by an ‘out’ international sporting icon and a community
group facilitator, the number of Queer-Straight Alliance Network Aotearoa
(QSANA) groups is increasing in New Zealand schools. (‘Aotearoa’ is the
Maori name for New Zealand.) Based on an American model, QSAs have
been implemented in some historically homophobic schools with posi-
tive outcomes (Quinlivan, 2013). Indeed, some of the participants in this
study were members of their school QSAs, citing positive experiences
from the resulting heightened awareness of bisexuality shown by their
One of the aims of this study was to provide new evidence that
documents the capabilities of young bisexual women to survive—and,
indeed, thrive—in adverse environments. It has been a privilege to work
with participants who have a positive outlook and a zest for living as young
bisexual women, many offering constructive bisexuality awareness-raising
M. McAllum 87

suggestions for schools and sexuality education programs. These strategies

and suggestions are encouraging. Yet other young bisexual women endure
a continued silence at school, underpinned by misrecognition of their sexual
identity. Zero tolerance of this silence and of the lack of understanding of
bisexuality demonstrated by teachers and students is a necessity; however,
until greater understanding of bisexuality and sexual diversity is encouraged
through preservice training and professional development, until school
policy becomes more definitive and translated into positive practice, and
until teachers become more secure in their knowledge and acceptance
of bisexuality, young bisexual women in New Zealand secondary schools
will continue to strive for acceptance, not as a subset of any other sexual
identity, but proudly as bisexual.


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Mary-Anne McAllum, MHSc (Hons), is a PhD candidate in the School of

Critical Studies in Education, Faculty of Education, University of Auck-
land. She has many years of experience in New Zealand education as a
92 Journal of Bisexuality

health teacher, resource developer, curriculum advisor, and professional

development facilitator in sexuality education and mental well-being. In
addition, she has taught on sexualities papers and in preservice Health
Education. This article presents data from Mary-Anne’s PhD research in
Education, due shortly for completion.

Focus Group Flashcard Prompts
• “Bisexuality is a passing phase” (D’Augelli, 2003)
• “Bisexuality is an act put on to attract heterosexual men” (McLean, 2003)
• “. . .bi people are sexual tourists, privileged people who get to flirt with a
queer identity in an appropriative fashion who always have the ability to
retreat into straight privilege” (Urocyon’s Meanderings, 2010)

Interview Prompts
1. To begin with, I’m going to ask you about your school days. Can you
describe a typical day at school for yourself?
Now think about being bisexual at school. How would you describe
that experience?
2. Do you think being out as bi plays a part in your learning at school?
• If so, how?
• If not, why not?
3. Think about your learning in class.
• Which subject do you find easiest?
• What is it about it that makes it easy?
• Can you talk about a time when you remember hearing or learning
something about bisexuality at school?
4. Now think back to your sexuality education lessons at school. What was
the best part for you and why was it the best?
• What wasn’t as helpful or useful to you as a young bisexual woman?
5. Can you think of ways that sexuality education could be improved?
6. Tell me about a time when your being bi influenced a relationship with
either a student or a teacher.
7. What about support from your school for being bi?
• Available information and contacts in the community
• Policies
• Teacher attitudes and practice re language, classroom environment
• School approach to diversity: Is there a ‘day of celebration’? If so, is
this useful? How do you feel about being celebrated?
8. Is there a diversity group at your school?
M. McAllum 93

• Can you tell me about how it works?

• Do you take part?
• How is the group regarded by students and staff who don’t take part?
• If there isn’t a group, why might this be?
9. What is the worst thing about being bisexual at school?
10. Can you please tell me how being bi at school has affected your feelings
about school overall?
11. When did you first hear the word and think it might be a good one to
• What does the term ‘bisexual’ mean to you?
12. What helped you decide to come out as bisexual?
• How did you feel about coming out?
13. Can I ask you to think about your life after you came out as bi? How do
you feel you were treated by other people?
14. What to you is the very best thing about being bi, and why is that so?
15. Can you tell me about some of the not so good things about being bi?
16. How do you manage these things?
17. Do people ask you any specific questions about being bisexual? Can you
tell me what those questions are?
18. How do you feel about answering them?
• Allow some time to discuss the focus group meeting and any specific
issues which may have arisen.
19. Do you have any bi heroes? What is it about them that make them your