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Speaking to Vada for Bisexual Awareness Week, Vaneet Mehta shares his experiences of biphobia, racism and bisexual invisibility.
It’s somewhat of a challenge to find a quiet spot in London on a Thursday evening in late August. It’s equally challenging to climb the five flights of stairs to the top of Waterstones in Piccadilly, where Vaneet Mehta has chosen to meet me for this interview. As I reach the top of the staircase, I realise two things: that taking the stairs was a bad idea, and that I have definitely made the wrong outfit choice today. Whilst I’ve chosen to wear a trench coat, because the weather is changing at a moment’s notice, Mehta is waiting for me in the bar wearing a tank top. Noticing that I’m melting under my greenhouse-esque coat, Mehta offers me a fan from his bag with an expletive printed in pink bold letters. I opt to use the drinks menu as a fan instead, where inside a list of overpriced drinks awaits us.
Putting the humidity to one side, we’re meeting the week before Manchester Pride, so I begin by asking him about which Pride events he has been to so far this year. It turns out, neither of us went to Pride in London this year; the one-way system in a packed Soho Square was enough to turn him away from going any time soon. “I don’t think I gel with mainstream Prides,” he tells me. I ask him if it’s because they’ve become too corporate. “I think it’s great that people can enjoy a vibe at Pride, but I find it ridiculous that at last year’s Manchester Pride you had to pay just to access a couple of streets. It’s awful.”
Mehta argues that UK Black Pride and Bi Pride are exceptions. “I think it’s important, because it puts the community first and foremost, and it’s about celebrating as well as being a protest,” he says. The vetting process for Pride events, Mehta argues, should be more robust. “I don’t think you should have corporations marching in Pride events, when their values don’t align with those of the community.” The notion that some companies are taking a so-called apolitical stance when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, is something that doesn’t make sense to him. “How can you be apolitical when grassroots organisations and our rights are overtly political?”
For him, the real test of a company’s commitment to equality is what they’re doing internally for their employees. “I think Pride organisers should be looking at what employees at those companies say about what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ there. Like do they have a network or events? Do they have policies? I don’t think anyone really does that background work, which is why it’s problematic.”
As somebody whose day job is working as a software engineer at an international company, I wonder what Mehta makes of the idea of a company wanting to march at Pride. “I think Pride is currently centering the wrong people. You end up having really big floats with Barclays, Spotify and other brands,” he replies. “As a person who works in a company, I definitely want to champion LGBTQ+ stuff and I want to do that externally as much as possible. But I don’t really gel with the idea of needing to march at Pride. What does that gain for us? It gains advertising for the company, but I don’t care about that. It doesn’t mean anything to me. For me, if I want to march at Pride, I want to do it as part of a community who marches at Pride, not a company.”
Mehta was raised in an Indian family in Southall, a predominantly South Asian district of West London, where he grew up with friends who were mostly Indian and Pakistani. He tells me he was used to talking about race, but not in a political way. “It would be more like people saying, offhandedly, ‘Oh, that’s such a white thing to do!’” He says that, for example, talking about people who wear bindis on their forehead when they are not from the Asian community. “I suddenly realised, when I came out, that I couldn’t have those particular conversations in certain parts of the queer community. I couldn’t even talk about cultural appropriation; people just didn’t want to hear about that.”
But before even coming out, Mehta had to deal with barriers that his upbringing had constructed. Having studied Natural Sciences at the University of Nottingham, before returning to his hometown to study Computer Science at Imperial College. Mehta then came out as bisexual at the age of 25.
The notion of shame was something that he wrestled with for a long time. Through his later work as a writer, Mehta wrote about growing up hearing the Punjabi phrase ‘Sharam ni aundi?’ (‘Don’t you have any shame?’). When I ask him what drives him today, he tells me that it’s how he felt around the time of his coming out. “There were so many barriers and so many issues and so much trauma that I faced because of that. There was so much that stopped me from coming out, yet me not coming out also impacted me. And ultimately, everything that drives my work today is just helping someone like me live.”
The shame got so severe, that he thought about ending his life. “I just want people to not feel like I did, because it was quite scary,” he recalls. “I dealt with suicidal ideation for a really, really long time and that was because of how much baggage I was holding on to. I didn’t see anything… I didn’t feel like there was anything out there for me. I want to make sure nobody else feels like that.”
However, the tension between race, culture and sexuality would follow him into the LGBTQ+ community. It was through dating apps that he discovered what was perceived as attractive and unattractive amongst the queer men. “I slowly started to realise about desirability,” he says. “And it’s not that I want all these white men to find me attractive, but it does knock your self esteem when you’re on these apps and nobody is interested in you. You end up in a situation where you just feel very undesirable.”
There have also been situations where he has experienced racism. As well as comments, online and on dating apps, Mehta shares that he has been confronted by people within the queer community who view him as an interloper. “People think I’m not a queer person,” he explains of some people’s reaction to queer people of colour in queer spaces. “I think with me people just assume I’m queer off the bat, because I have long hair and that’s all that it takes apparently.” Some then assume that he is gay, and when Mehta tells them that he is bi, they don’t want to hear that. “So when I’m not experiencing racism, I’m experiencing biphobia. And when I’m not experiencing biphobia, I’m experiencing racism.”
Given his candour when it comes to sharing his experiences, I ask Mehta if he considers himself to be an activist. He smiles, as though this isn’t the first time he’s been asked this question, before replying, “No, actually.” So why is ‘activist’ on his LinkedIn bio? “I do it as an outward facing thing, because I know that a lot of corporations will see ‘activists’ and think they should talk to this person. But otherwise, in my social media bio or for my book, it’s ‘software engineer, writer and public speaker.’ I don’t like activists because I think I have some weird feelings on the word. It doesn’t sit comfortably with me.”
Speaking of his book, Bisexual Men Exist: A Handbook for Bisexual, Pansexual and M-Spec Men, was published at the start of the year. Originating from a Twitter hashtag #BisexualMenExist in response to seeing biphobia on social media, Mehta tells me that it was as a result of this campaign that a publisher approached him with the idea of this book. He also wanted to achieve some visibility when it came to bisexual people in society. “I really wanted to not do my usual thing of fighting with all these people, because that’s what I do and a lot of people get wrapped up in that,” he says, rolling his eyes. “And actually this just overrides that narrative by going, well, have some positivity instead.”
He wasn’t expecting the response sparked from that hashtag. It saw people from across the world posting their own experiences of being bisexual. “So many people jumped on it,” recalls Mehta. “It allowed people to feel less alone. It made people feel seen. It even helped some people to come out using it.” The book, he says, filled a gap on the shelf as a resource for bi people.
Due to the amount of erasure and discrimination that bisexual people face today, said resources are so desperately needed. When I ask Mehta about biphobia, he tells me it is twofold. Firstly, bi people face discrimination from wider society. At the time of writing his book, he had noticed comments online from straight women, who were sharing their opinions about whether or not they would date a bisexual man. “A lot of the comments were basically saying they wouldn’t date a bisexual man,” he recalls. “The comments were pretty disgusting, a lot of them coming from a place of homophobia for sure.”
In addition, there is discrimination from within the LGBTQ+ community. It should be, as Mehta puts it, a safe space for everyone. Yet in his experience, the queer community is not built for bisexual people. “When you realise that the community is not welcoming to us, we then have to deal with all the same issues that we dealt with from the straight community when we were coming out,” he explains.
“It just makes it even harder, because unlike when gay and lesbian people go into the community and they can network, have support, discover a found family and resources, we don’t have those same things available to us. We get shunned from our own community.” In Mehta’s view, it’s this discrimination and lack of awareness from within the community that causes greater isolation amongst bisexual people. “We end up thinking, I guess I’m just alone.”
Thinking about bisexual awareness, does Mehta believe things are heading in the right direction? “There have been a lot of improvements,” he reasons, citing Bisexual Awareness Week and Bi Pride as an opportunity to raise awareness and fight for greater equality for bi people. Yet things are still not perfect. “There’s a really big challenge when it comes to getting funding, especially for the grassroots organisations who support bisexual people. These organisations are just not really given a seat at the table, and I feel like a lot of the community don’t really recognise that.”
When trying to engage in conversation about discrimination, be it biphobia or racism, Mehta argues that those on the other side want him to assimilate. “They don’t want me to bring myself into that conversation,” he says. “And it’s not my style, because it took me so long to get to this point. I’m not gonna just give myself up now.”
Whilst the LGBTQ+ community is about being proud and having self acceptance, he feels this only applies for certain groups within the community. There have been times whilst in queer spaces, where Mehta has removed himself, as he hasn’t felt seen or understood. For him, the change came when he found spaces specifically for bi people and queer people of colour. “That’s why I feel most at home at UK Black Pride and Bi Pride, because they feel like places where I am me, and it’s for me, and it feels safe.”
It can be difficult to get people to engage with these topics, I venture, especially if they don’t feel directly affected by them. As we sit above London’s biggest book shop, Mehta suggests that people should read more books to understand other people’s experiences. He also believes it’s about people realising just how fragile their own rights are.
Trans people have never been under greater attack, be it from within the LGBTQ+ community or outside it. They are yet another group who are fighting for their seat at the table. “People are selfish,” he replies, referencing the treatment of trans people by the government and the lack of response from some parts of the queer community. “I think the only way that we get to a place where we get past this, is if a lot of people who’ve been sitting quite comfortably, like white, cis, gay people start realising that they’ll come for them next.”
“And reminding these people that your rights can be taken away just as quickly,” adds Mehta. “But also, you should care about these people, because they’re part of our community. And that’s what community means.”
Vaneet Mehta is featured on Vada‘s latest digital cover, photographed by Priyan Odedra. Mehta’s book Bisexual Men Exist: A Handbook for Bisexual, Pansexual and M-spec Men is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and is now available for purchase. The cover, ਸਤੰਬਰ ਦਾ ਮੁੱਦਾ (‘The September Issue’ in Punjabi), coincides with Bisexual Awareness Week, an annual celebration held between 16th and 23rd September.