Julkaistu teoksessa "Gendered and Sexualised Violence in Educational Environments". Toim. Vappu Sunnari, Jenny Kangasvuo ja Mervi Heikkinen. Femina Borealis 5, Oulun yliopisto, Oulu.

Sexually Dichotomised Culture in the Lives of Bisexual Youth in School Context


Sexuality is heavily dichotomised in western culture, and sexual identities are usually defined either homo- or heterosexual. Nevertheless, the bisexual identities of young Finnish bisexuals tend to be strong. They take advantage of prejudices and use them to define the concept of bisexuality and to construct their bisexual identity. They are certain, what bisexuality means to them, but try not to generalise their experiences and thoughts on other bisexuals.

I have interviewed 30 persons born between 1970 and 1981 to obtain data. My aim is to ponder what kind of experiences young Finnish bisexuals have at school and how school strengthens sexual dichotomy.

Bisexual youth face prejudices and denial in sexually dichotomized western culture. The prejudices and myths of bisexuality are linked to the dichotomous sexual system, which divides people into men and women, gay and straight. A dichotomous sexual system can be seen as structural violence which affects bisexual youth both at school and in society as a whole. Bisexual youth say that they have not gained knowledge about bisexuality at school but on their own. In their opinion the sexual education at school seems to reinforce the traditional division of homo- and heterosexuality and of masculinity and femininity.


Finnish bisexual youth are living in a culture which is characterized by sexual dichotomies, heterosexism and heteronormativity - general traits of western sexual culture. However, their society is also one of the most emancipated societies in the world considering the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

Although the society is quickly changing its legistlation, norms and regulations to non-heterosexist and liberating, the general culture is still quite heterosexist and sexually dichotomized. At school the heterosexist and dichotomised culture still seems to be prevalent.

Young people construct their sexualities during the period, when they spend most of their time at school. Therefore the role of the school is crucial when considering the issue of maintaining and reproducing the heterosexist and dichotomous culture.

My aim in this article is to ponder what kind of experiences young Finnish bisexuals have at school and how does school strengthen sexual dichotomy. The paper is partially based on my master's thesis which I wrote on cultural models of bisexuality in Finland. The master's thesis concentrated on how Finnish bisexuals define the concept "bisexuality". The interviewees talked about their memories and experiences of being bisexual in Finland. In the master's thesis I did not discuss their school experiences very deeply. For this article I collected their school memories from the interviews for interpretation.

First I will define the concept of sexual dichotomy, which is the central theoretical concept in my article. Then I will describe how this sexual dichotomy can be seen in Finnish sexual culture on a more practical level. After that I will interpret my data further and tell about the experiences of young, Finnish bisexuals at school.

Dichotomous Sexual System

Basically sexual dichotomy - or dichotomous sexual system - means that sexuality is considered binary. Sexuality is divided into opposite halves: male sexuality and female sexuality, homosexuality and heterosexuality, wrong sexuality and right sexuality. Sexual dichotomies limit sexualities to rigid categories which exist only when opposing each other: male sexuality does not exist without female sexuality, homosexuality without heterosexuality and the norms of right and wrong sexuality define the borderlines in between. A dichotomous sexual system itself is very complex and different dichotomies are deeply entwined. Sexual dichotomies deny and marginalize the existence of transgender-identities and bisexuality, but also limit the experiences of those people who actually do fit into the categories.

According to Jeffrey Weeks (1995), western thinking about sexuality derives from the Man-Woman dichotomy. In western thinking sexuality and gender are entwined. Sexuality itself is defined with gender opposities: Man and Woman are opposities and sexuality is something that happens between them.

The Man-Woman dichotomy is explained by reproduction. Reproduction is seen as a reason for the existence of sexuality (Weeks 1995, 19-41). However, reproduction is not an exhaustive explanation: most of the things defined as sexual have nothing to do with reproduction, for example kissing, hugging, caressing, flirting, masturbation, etc. Sexuality is not limited to reproductive actions or between men and women. Seeing reproduction as a function of sexuality is part of the dichotomous sexual system.

In western thinking, it is usual to emphasize the differences between men and women - not the similarities. Also the sexualities of men and women are divided into two different phenomena. Anatomic differences create an assumption of the differences of sexuality, and biological differences are seen as essential and sufficient explanations for sexuality. (Weeks 1995, 45-66.)

Judith Butler (1990, 1993) has developed a very handy concept, namely heterosexual hegemony. She says that assuming heterosexuality as natural and normal, keeps the Man-Woman dichotomy stable. The coherence between the categories of cultural Man and cultural Woman requires heterosexuality. Institutionalized heterosexuality, heterosexual hegemony in Butler's terms, both produces gender categories and demands their existence. The gender categories contain a causality from anatomic body to gender and desire and the claim that desire describes gender and gender describes desire.

Therefore a baby born with a vagina and ovaries is considered a girl, a woman, and women are considered to desire men. Desire for men is seen to describe womanhood and femininity; to desire women means to question womanhood and femininity. Women who desire women are excluded from the cultural category of the Woman, which is stabilised in this way. However, persons desiring both men and women - or questioning the categories altogether - seem to threaten the dichotomous system.

Gender Belief - the Sacred Order of Dichotomy

Binary, heterosexist thinking is pervasive also in Finnish sexual culture. Sari Charpentier developed a concept of gender belief to describe general Finnish attitudes towards gender. Gender belief means a belief that the basis of the society is the gender difference, which is manifested in heterosexual marriage. Charpentier has studied the debate of lesbian and gay marriages that was going on in the last years of 1990's in Finnish newspapers. (Charpentier 2001.)

The debate had clear heterosexist and violent tones. Although the debate consisted of both positive and negative arguments towards lesbian and gay marriages, the negative arguments were more visible. The debate on newspapers developed into demonstrations for and against the partnership law. After a registered partnership for same sex couples was legislated, fundamental Christian groups demonstrated even outside the city and municipal registries where the first same sex couples were registered.

In gender belief, heterosexual marriage is seen as sacred, and lesbian and gay marriages - and homosexuality overall - is seen as a threat to the sacredness of heterosexual marriage. Heterosexual marriage is the basis of society, and any attempt to change its position in society is threatening. The heterosexual marriage is grounded on gender difference. Therefore the gay and lesbian marriage is not threatening itself, but in the way it blurs the gender difference. Charpentier calls the heterosexual order of genders The Sacred Order. The maintenance of this order is seen as necessary for the maintenance of Finnish society - and even for the independence of state. (Charpentier 2001, 81-92.)

The sacred order of gender belief is not based solely on Christianity but on the belief of essential gender difference, which is a mixture of Christian, teleological and pseudopsychological beliefs. Charpentier identified different discourses in the debate of lesbian and gay marriages that pinpoint the gender belief. The discourses are Christian, psychological and natural discourse. These discourses justify the gender belief by describing homosexuality as sinful, sick and/or unnatural and sanctify the heterosexuality and gender difference. (Charpentier 2001, 46-67.)

Charpentier studied mainly newspaper debates, but interestingly the same heterosexist undertows and discourses could be found in the legislative documents. (Charpentier 2001, 107-113; Suomen Eduskunta 2001.) Since March 2002 it has been possible for couples of the same gender to register a partnership in Finland. This is a great step towards a more equal and diverse society, but still some traits of the law can be described as heterosexist. For example same sex couples are not allowed to take the same surname through the registration like different sex couples are. If same sex couples want the same surname, they have to request it from the local District Court and pay for it. Also adoption, even inside the family, is forbidden for people in a registered partnership – even though adoption is possible for single people.

The Development of the Dichotomous Sexual System in Finland

How has this situation developed? After all, Finnish sexual culture has changed drastically during the last hundred years, as has sexual culture in the western countries in general.

Finland has changed from an agrarian society to a highly industrialized urban society in a very short time period, about thirty years. In the agrarian culture, homosexuality was not considered interesting or important - there are very few stories or jokes about homosexuality - or sexuality between the persons of same gender - in Finnish folklore and tradition. Homosexuality has became an issue in Finland only after the second world war, and the concept itself has not been familiar to most of people before the 60s. Only in the recent thirty years has homosexuality became a center of interest in Finland and now so common 'homottelu', name-calling with a word 'homo' – ‘puff', ‘gay' - has became common in the 80s and 90s. The use of the word 'homo' as an insult reflects the position of homosexuality in Finnish sexual culture. (Löfström 1999a, 218-221; 1999b, 9-24.)

According to Jan Löfström (1999a, 196-199; 1999b, 9-24) the gender difference was not as rigid in the Finnish agrarian culture in the 19th century as it was in the middle class and Middle-European industrialized culture in the 19th century, and in Finnish culture today. In the peasant culture, the roles and spaces of the genders were overlapping, and although a gender based labor division existed, the gender was not essentialized. The gender difference was based more on tradition and labour division than sexuality and body. The gender system divided people into men and women, but it also allowed the existence of feminine men and masculine women - the last mentioned was even admired. Men were more appreciated and had more power, but manhood was linked to the ability to do hard work and be responsible for one's actions, not for sexuality. The symbolic difference between man and boy was more important than the symbolic difference between woman and man. Therefore two hardworking men living together could be highly appreciated and their sexualities were not an issue.

If in the agrarian community the gender boundaries were flexible, the gender system in the Finnish bourgeois class at the end of the 19th century was quite similar to the bourgeois gender system in Middle Europe. The gender division was rigid, and this polarization started to spread to the gender system of the whole society during the first few decades of the 20th century. The intermediators of these values were, for example, the media (first literature and newspapers, later also cinema), medical science, legislation and school. The values and discourses of the middle class became dominant in Finnish culture. During the 1960s, the gender system was already very polarized compared to the traditional agrarian gender system. (Löfström 1999a, 196-199, 234-246.)

According to Löfström, there is a link between a gender system that is based on polarized gender differences and the separation of homosexuality from normative heterosexuality. Heterosexist culture needs both gender division and homosexuality that guards the boundaries of genders. (Löfström 1999a, 196-199, 234-246.)

Therefore homosexuality was not seen as important or interesting before it could be used to define the borderlines of acceptable Man and Woman. Homosexuality is not important culturally as a phenomenon itself, but as a means to define masculinity and femininity. Non-acceptably behaving men and women can be defined as homosexuals which keeps the categories of real, normative and acceptable Woman and Man pure. The rigid borderlines between Men and Women have developed along the development of urbanized culture, in which the roles and positions of men and women approach each other. (Löfström 1999a, 196-199, 234-246.)

Elina Haavio-Mannila and Osmo Kontula (1993, 1995, 1997, 2001) have carried out two quite large statistical studies, one of which is based on sexual biographies in Finnish sexuality. They gathered data in the 1990s and could also compare the data to data gathered in 1971. Although their research has been criticized for both their research methods and for being heteronormative and heterosexist, they have gained some interesting knowledge about the change in Finnish sexual culture in the latter half of the 20th century. Their data does not cover the changes from agrarian sexuality to modern sexuality, that Löfström described.

Haavio-Mannila and Kontula divide their human data into three sexual generations. The first generation was born between 1917 and 1936 and it is called as the "Generation of continence", the second, born between 1937-1956 called the "Generation of sexual revolution" and the third, born between 1957-1980 called the "Generation of equalizing". The year limits of the generations might be disputed, but the main point is that Finnish society has developed from a highly prudent society of the twenties and thirties to a society of the 21st century that considers sexuality as a normal, positive part of life. The development has gone through a so called 'revolution' that includes the decriminalisation of pre- and extra-marital sex, to sexual relationships between persons of the same sex, the rise of the feminist and gay movement, the development of birth control and media coverage of sexuality as an issue. Compared to Löfströms study, this revolution means also a polarization of genders and categorization of homosexuality.

Seen from a heterosexual (and heterosexist) perspective, sexuality at the start of the 2000s is more satisfying, more visible and a more positive thing in Finland than it has ever been before. The Finnish societyof today seems to take up a very positive and open attitude towards sexuality. Sexuality is seen as a healthy, enjoyable, normal and happy part of human life, related to individual tastes, not dictated to by the norms of society. Young people start having sexual relationships earlier than before and are generally more satisfied with their sex lives than earlier generations. Cohabitation outside (and before) marriage is usual and accepted. Sexuality is seen as essential for the satisfaction of relationships according to both men and women. People trust their sexual skills and their sexual attractiveness more than before. People are ready to seek new sexual experiences and do not condemn any consensual form of sex. Women have better possibilities to be active in sexual relationships and to have several partners without the fear of social sanctions as in previous times. (Haavio-Mannila - Kontula 2001.)

However, we should ask what does this sexual emancipation mean. Does it really mean happier, healthier sex lives for everyone - as the general discourse on sexual emancipation seems to claim? Or does so-called sexual emancipation, liberating sexuality just reflect individualized consumer culture in which sexualities are just products that can be sold, bought and traded? Sexuality has became more and more consumerized and the consumerism creates new oppressed classes. Non-heterosexualities are accepted as long as they are hip and trendy and spice up the heterosexist culture but the ideological heterosexist system is changed reluctantly.

Despite all the above, the general attitude towards non-heterosexualities in Finland is quite positive. Although there are some small - usually fundamental Christian - groups that claim very strongly that non-heterosexuality is sinful and unnatural, most Finns have quite neutral opinions on non-heterosexualities - or at least do not present heterosexist attitudes openly. Compared to the situation in Russia and the United States, Finland may seem like a haven for non-heterosexual people. Haavio-Mannila's and Kontula's study showed that Finnish attitudes towards non-heterosexualities have become more and more accepting during the past few decades. The new partnership law proves that the Finnish government is also ready to acknowledge the non-heterosexual population. However, 'sexuality' in Finland is still mainly heterosexuality - non-heterosexual sexualities are considered an exception, and maybe an abomination.

School as a Special Area for Maintaining a Dichotomous Sexual System

School is one of the special areas where heterosexist culture is reinforced. Other areas are, for example, the media, academia, medicine, government and religion. School is not an isolated area in society, but it reflects the general values and beliefs of the society - as well as maintaining and reproducing them.

Transferring the value system of the culture is at least as important a purpose for school as giving children basic education. In general, this is a good thing: school gives pupils certain approved behaviour norms and teaches them to adjust to the culture they are living in. But when the culture has negative and oppressive traits, as heterosexism, racism and misogyny, the school should be the first institution to start getting rid of them - and not the first one to reinforce them. At worst, the negative traits can prevent pupils from learning anything at all (eg. Owens 1998).

According to research on the Finnish school system (eg. Lehtonen 1995), heterosexism is an essential part of the school culture. Furthermore, educational organisations maintain and reproduce heterosexist culture. Teachers tend to allow, and even continue heterosexist discourses and even bullying.

Heterosexist practices at school are often regarded as normal everyday routine, so common that teachers either are not even aware of them, and may continue them themselves or ignore them, if they perceive them. These practices include heterosexist bullying, excluding non-heterosexual students and teachers, and heterosexist teaching. Boys and young men especially are allowed to show their heterosexist attitudes openly - racist remarks may be sanctioned but heterosexist remarks rarely are. It can even be said that heterosexism is the norm for boys and young men. Therefore heterosexist bullying may be ignored or the victims may even be blamed for being bullied. (Kehily - Nayak 1996; Owens 1998, 83-99)

According to various studies (eg. Kangasvuo 2001; Lehtonen 1995; Owens 1998; Epstein 1997) non-heterosexual pupils do not feel comfortable at school which is highly heterosexist. It is self-evident that heterosexism at school discriminates, belittles and oppresses non-heterosexual pupils. In heterosexist environments, non-heterosexual pupils do not get enough information - or no information at all - about non-heterosexualities or relevant sexuality education. In general, they get bullied more than heterosexual kids and also suffer more problems with their sexual identity.

The heterosexism also oppresses heterosexual pupils. Heterosexism creates stereotypical categories of men and women and forces girls and boys into these categories, whether they are suitable or not. This limits the individuality and achievement of each pupil at school – be they non-heterosexual or heterosexual, girl, boy, transgender. The boys and girls who are not or do not behave like the culturally acceptable Woman and Man may especially encounter problems. Not being or behaving like the culturally acceptable Woman and Man may result in shyness, silence, good grades, insignificance, non-violence and non-physical interests for boys and hyper-activity, loudness, physical interests, sexual activity and rebellion for girls. Any behaviour and traits that differ from the stereotypical masculinity or femininity may cause heterosexist remarks from other pupils. (Kehily - Nayak 1996.)

Being too good at school as a reason for heterosexist bullying is interesting. In this particular case, heterosexism is undeniably influencing the school achievement of the pupil , even if in other cases the influence on school achievement may not be so straightforward. When pupils' underachievement is under consideration, heterosexism should be too, because it is clearly a factor in school achievement (Epstein 1997).

Mary Jane Kehily and Anoop Nayak see heterosexism and homophobia as a way to construct heterosexual male identity. Heterosexual masculinity is manifested by heterosexist practices, such as bullying, name-calling and remarks during teaching. Boys disassociate themselves from femininity to reinforce their masculinity - and what is perceived as feminine in a boy is associated with homosexuality. Therefore heterosexism is more about gender than sexuality in the school environment. Heterosexism and homophobia can be seen as rituals of gender which draw lines between masculinity and femininity. (Kehily - Nayak 1996). Debbie Epstein (1997) also argues that heterosexism and gender division are deeply linked and sexism and misogyny cannot be erased from school without considering heterosexism closely. A strong division of genders and heterosexism are linked, as mentioned before.

Interviews of Finnish Bisexuals

In general, bisexuality means an ability to feel sexual, romantic and emotional feelings towards different genders - or people regardless of gender. For my master's thesis, I interviewed 40 self-defined bisexuals of different ages. In my study, I let the interviewees define the term 'bisexuality', but most of my interviewees defined bisexuality as described above . I found it relevant that my interviewees were self-defined and self-identified bisexuals that meant the definition was not made by me or anyone else other than the interviewees themselves. The great majority of my interviewees were young and female. I had only one male informant who was born before 1970.

I advertised my study in five Finnish newspapers, the mailing lists of Seta1 and in Z-magazine, which is published by Seta. I also asked some of my friends to be interviewed and used the so-called snow ball method to gather informants. About 50 persons contacted me and volunteered to be interviewed and I planned to interview all of them. For geographical and time limitations some interviews were impossible. Therefore my selection of the data was quite reactive: I was ready to interview everyone who bothered to contact me about this study.

I chose 30 interviews of young interviewees born between 1970 and 1981 to consider their school experiences especially. 26 of them were born in the 1970s and 4 in the 1980s, and 7 were male. Their school experiences date from the 80s and 90s.

I must point out that the informants described their school experiences from hindsight and several years later. Therefore their descriptions of their experiences are re-interpreted reflections of actual experiences. Most of my informants have thought about their youth a lot during their identity process, and their experiences take on a whole different meaning as part of a narrated history, rather than from current experience.

The experiences my informants described can be divided into two groups. The first grouped their experiences and thoughts about teaching, education, and the other group collected their experiences and thoughts about school as a social environment. The interviewees talked mostly about experiences at school as a social environment, the teaching was not usually discussed in depth, but just in passing. One reason for this, was that I asked more questions about their experiences at school as a social environment - another might be the lack of visibility of bisexuality in teaching and therefore the lack of the interviewees' experience of bisexuality in teaching.

Forming Bisexual Identity at School

My informants said that they had usually known they were 'different' at a very young age, even at five or six, though they had not a suitable term to describe this 'difference'. Usually they knew something about homosexuality, the insulting word 'homo' (puff, fag) at least, but they did not have information on bisexuality. Later, in their teens they usually knew there were gays and straights, and tried to categorize themselves as either. For example Saija (born 1971) thought that she was heterosexual through her teens and started to define herself as a bisexual in her twenties.

I did not understand that, I did not know that it [bisexuality] even existed... I have memories of being interested in girls when I was very young, but because I was also interested in boys I thought that all right, I must be heterosexual... (Saija, 1971).

Some of my female interviewees described, how they thought that they were lesbian, when they were in their teens. The division between lesbians and heterosexual women was so strong that they felt that a desire for other girls meant that they must be lesbian. A strong crush or relationship with another girl steered their identity towards a lesbian identity, which was felt to be the only possible identity when dating other girls.

I liked boys because that was a habit [among girls at school], but I did not like them really... at the upper level of comprehensive school I thought I was a lesbian, because I did not know that bisexuals exist, and thought that if I like girls, then I must be a lesbian... (Mira, 1976).

Therefore my informants usually had quite a long identity crisis, longer than gays and straights. Most of them had undergone their identity crisis in their late teens, or in their early twenties. This means that most of them were quite confused about their sexuality during their school years. They could not form either a coherent lesbian or gay identity, or a coherent straight identity because of their feelings towards different genders. Though some of my informants did have easy identity processes and could identify their bisexuality at school, most of them had some kind of difficulties.

Ilkka (1970) said that he tried to handle his sexual difference by denying it and being as perfect a pupil as possible.

At sixteen I thought with my own brains for the very first time, until then I was the most perfect person in the school, I was the best in my class, I was the ideal son of every parent, I did everything perfectly, I was so bloody perfect, and then I thought that if I continue like this I will still be perfect at 28, but at the same time [I'll be a serial killer] (Ilkka, 1970)

Referring to being a serial killer, Ilkka meant that if he had denied his bisexuality, he would have gone completely crazy - and according to him, being as perfect as possible during his teens, was also pathological in nature.

Elisa (1979) said that she did not act like girls were supposed to act in lower secondary school, which lead her into trouble sometimes. She behaved both in girlish and boyish ways - both dressed as a princess and played with toyguns, for instance. Later, she was bullied in upper secondary school, partly because of her non-feminine behaviour.

At the start of lower secondary school I was a nice pupil with good grades, but from third to sixth grade I was not so nice. I got good grades and did not disturb in class, but I drew caricatures and comics of other pupils and teachers with two other girls. I also remember we had a shooting contest in which we aimed at a poster of New Kids on the Block, an idolised popband of that time. Other girls were furious and we were amused.(Elisa, 1979.)

Discovering the term bisexual was important for most of my informants. They said that through that word they could find their place between the categories of gays and straights.

It was a relief to find some term and explanation for why I felt and thought like this when I was seven, because I realised then that I was not like other kids... so the problems have been about that [finding a name for feelings] (Johanna, 1980.)

Teaching - A Means of Constructing Bisexual Identity?

The teaching at Finnish school seemed to be very heteronormative, as the research of Jukka Lehtonen have also shown (Lehtonen, 1995.). Teemu Laajasalo's study (2001) on textbooks in Finnish high schools show that heteronormativity is a general rule in teaching.

Sexuality education is obligatory in the Finnish school curriculum, but it concentrates mostly on puberty, venereal diseases and birth control. Almost all of my informants said that they had not received any information or even references to bisexuality at school. The sexuality education mainly focused on health education about contraception, puberty and venereal diseases. Homosexuality was usually mentioned - but just mentioned, nothing more. When sexual minorities came up in teaching, in a way or another, the attitude was dismissive.

I don't remember teachers talking about gays and straights at school at all, it [sexuality education] was more like health education, like this is a boy and this is a girl, go to school first, then have children... I don't think [that the education] was very broad-minded, but not very uptight either, the thing [sexuality] was just passed over in silence...(Anna, 1976.)

At school there was no kind of education [on bisexuality] at any time... maybe the word 'gay' was mentioned and then everybody giggled and that was all... (Mira, 1976.)

In small town and village schools, talking about sexual minorities was not considered relevant at all. My informants said that the teachers seemed to think that there are no people belonging to sexual minorities in their environment - and especially not in the school they were teaching.

I have been at school in [small northern town]... there they did not even think bisexuals or lesbians and gays really exist... they just thought that queers live somewhere else, in some big city... (Terhi 1970.)

School seemed to reinforce the heterosexuality-homosexuality dichotomy in teaching also when sexual minorities were actually discussed. Usually gay men were presented as the quintessential example of sexual minorities - lesbians, let alone bisexuals, transgender people or SM-people, were not discussed at all.

At school they talk only about heterosexuality, and then somebody from Seta (Endnote 1) comes and talks about gays and lesbians, and bisexuality is just avoided, it just does not exist... this way some kind of illusion of extreme dichotomy does emerge very easily... (Venla 1977.)

However, there were some exceptions, when the teaching was experienced to be specially informative and enlightening.

I was in second grade of high school when I first heard about bisexuality, I was 17 then. We had a course on ethics in religion, and a very lovely, longhaired bi-woman from Seta told us about sexual minorities. It was the first time I heard the word bisexuality. Hearing the word and the concept and the definition was really liberating. I had thought for some time that gender does not matter if you fall in love, and when someone gave a name to that phenomenon, it was like someone just turned on the light in my world, completely. (Heli, 1979.)

Most of my informants said that it would be important to talk about sexual minorities at school in an objective and realisitic way - they did not get much sexuality education at home, so school as a place for sexuality education was significant. They pointed out that all sexual minorities must be considered in sexuality education - not only gay men.

Kids should be told more about sexual minorities, and these people could come to school and tell about their experiences, so kids could see that homosexuality is not sick or something, and anyway the attitudes should be more tolerant... I mean that these issues should not be over-emphasized, but if some kids want more information they should get it... there's a lot to improve at school... (Johanna, 1980.)

As my interviewees' experience prove, the lack of information on bisexuality at school did not necessarily mean that their identity process would suffer. The interviewees got information on bisexuality elsewhere. Some of the informants had strong opinions on how homosexuality was presented in teaching and how same sex love and interest was belittled and brushed aside. For them commenting on heterosexist teaching and prejudices was one way to consider and construct their sexual identity. But the question is whether it is better to construct sexual identity by confronting prejudices and myths or by getting support and gaining knowledge.

School as a Social Environment for Bisexual Youth

However, school as a social environment seemed to have a more important influence on my interviewees than the teaching aspect. The social structure of the school reinforced the sexual dichotomy. Children were divided into groups of boys and girls at a very young age and social pressure that keeps the boundaries between boys and girls is very strong. Boys and girls themselves guard the boundaries between genders. Jukka Lehtonen, a sociologist, claims in his article elsewhere in this book that heterosexist bullying and 'homottelu', name-calling with words 'queer' or 'puff', is one of the social strategies to construct gender and sexuality in the school context.

When I was not at school, and in the first grade, all of my best friend were boys, but at some stage a gender division emerged... girls had female friends and boys had male friends... then I had only girls as friends, because it was socially strange [to have boys as friends]... that division was kept up till upper secondary school, even till the end of high school... after that I got rid of this school habit [of gender division] and had friends without dividing them into boys and girls... (Pirkko 1970.)

The gender division at secondary school was reinforced especially with heterosexist bullying, but also with heterosexist humour, crushes and pretend love affairs, in which non-heterosexually feeling kids could not participate whole-heartedly. Crushes and pretend love affairs were an important part of girls' social activity at school. These pretend love affairs can be seen as a means of constructing institutionalized heterosexuality - but also as a means of constructing heterosexual identity on an individual level. Therefore these pretend love affairs help construct straight kids' identities but hinder constructing queer kids' identities, at the same time.

For girls it is usual to have crushes on boys from their first grade, crushes are part of normal social activity, the crushes and boys are talked about at school with girl friends... I had crushes on boys, but there was no social place for crushes on girls... later, when I realized I am bisexual I started to think about my childhood and realized that I did have crushes on girls too, but did not have any word for it... (Pirkko 1970.)

I had always known that there is something wrong [with having crushes on girls], even before I was at school, and I did not talk about it with anyone... not like I talked about boys, like having love affairs with boys, those cute ten-year-old children's love affairs... (Johanna, 1980.)

In school context crushes on people of the same gender were not possible, they did not exist. My informants said that they actually discriminated against themselves and repressed their feelings towards the same sex during their school years. Those, who actually had crushes on people of the same gender, felt strongly about it.

I realised I had a small crush on my [girl] friend, and it was a totally awful thing at that time, I thought that no-one else is like me... [it felt] odd, creepy, perverse... (Mira, 1976.)

The social pressure to keep pupils in certain gender and sexuality categories is strong, and the categories can be broken only if the pupils have support, usually from a friend or a lover.

Sometimes the term 'bisexual' was used as a part of the bullying. Using the word 'homo', 'gay' is of course more usual in Finnish schools, which Jukka Lehtonen has been researching, and using the term bi as an insult was more a curiosity during more general heteronormative bullying.

It was a joke at a break, I don't actually remember... of course someone was called homo at first, and then the word and the thought were played with, and this funny word [bisexual] was found... the word did not have much meaning then, it was just laughed at... (Veli 1975.)

Usually sexual minorities were not considered a suitable issue to talk about with friends in any other than a joking way. Bisexual youngsters - or homosexuals - could not share their feelings and experiences with other youngsters without fear of being bullied.

I did not talk about my friends about it [different sexualities], it was not visible, it was covered up and totally outside the society, not outcast, but something really freaky... (Mira 1976.)

My interviewees experienced denial at school, if they constructed their bisexual identity at school age and decided to be open about their bisexuality. The denial and belittling happened especially when young people spoke about their bisexuality at school. Usually those who questioned the bisexual identity of the informants, were fellow pupils. This caused a digression in their identity process.

In upper secondary school I told some of my friends that I am bisexual, but they did not take it seriously, but thought that's okay, she's just decided that or something... (Mira, 1976.)

Kaisa gave her experience of coming out as bisexual at school:

She [a friend] came to me and said: you are bisexual just to be original, and I thought that's all right, a small straight screams help inside me... (Kaisa, 1973.)

Elisa said that she was fifteen when she told her friends about her bisexuality. They did not take her bisexuality seriously.

They said] you're just trying to be trendy or something [...] like it's something weird or something, I think they were really mean... (Elisa, 1979.)

Although bisexual youth face denial and belittling at school, school can also be a place where queer youth meet. Other queer young people may be very important persons when constructing a sexual identity. Some of my female informants had constructed a lesbian identity during their school time after a relationship or love affair with another girl. Often the girls supported each other's identity process and sometimes became very active in promoting lesbian rights at school. Although the lesbian identity changed later to bisexual identity, spending time with other queer girls at school was emancipating and empowering. Mikko tells about a similar experience with him and another boy.

There was this guy who was in a parallel class in the upper secondary school with me, we didn't know each other then, but when we started high school we were the only ones that knew each other and started to be friends. It came out that he was gay, and that had a great influence on me, suddenly it was possible to talk about sexuality with someone... (Mikko 1976.)

For Aino, special music school provided a space where it was possible to present different sexualities freely. Her experience proves that non-heterosexist and tolerant school environments can be created if desired.

I have grown up in an environment that is very tolerant, I have been at a special high school where the system was like... people, all people had relationships with everyone else and so on... so it [bisexuality] was not odd to me at all. (Aino, 1975.)

With support from other youngsters, school could actually be transformed into an empowering environment, in which queer pupils could act politically and try to make school more tolerant - and sometimes even succeed.


Bisexual youth face prejudices and denial in sexually dichotomized western cultures and at school. The prejudices and denial of bisexuality are linked to the dichotomous sexual system, which divides people into men and women, gay and straight. A dichotomous sexual system can be seen as a structural violence which affects bisexual youth both at school and in society as a whole. Bisexual youth say that they have not received information about bisexuality at school but from their own sources. In their opinion, the education and especially the social environment at school seems to reinforce the traditional divisions of homo- and heterosexuality and of masculinity and femininity. Therefore, bisexuality and young bisexuals are very invisible at school and do not get help in constructing their sexual identity.

However, some of the informants' experience show that there is a lot of hope. There are special schools which provide a tolerant area for forming one's sexual identity - and in intolerant schools, queer kids could group together to try and change the school atmosphere. Therefore bisexual youth at school were not merely victims of heterosexist and sexually dichotomous school culture, but could also be active agents who fought against intolerance and heterosexism - if not openly, then in their thoughts at least.

But what does bisexuality mean for the Finnish sexual culture? Are bisexual youths just exceptions or are they a sign of something else? If we recall Jan Löfström's (1999) idea, that there is a link between a gender system based on polarized gender differences and the separation of homosexuality from normative heterosexuality, I would claim that young people who identify as bisexuals are a sign of change in our sexual culture.

Young bisexual people are in a difficult situation: they struggle with a dichotomous sexual system in which they cannot find a place to be. At the same time, they may be part of a new, emerging sexual system. School is an area that has the options to accept and progress with the change, ot try to hinder it at the expense of non-heterosexual pupils, or simply to ignore it. Another entirely separate question is, how would this new, non-dichotomous and non-heterosexist sexual culture be. That has yet to be seen.


1 Seta, Seksuaalinen Tasavertaisuus ry. (in English Sexual Equality Association) is the national Finnish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender association which works with government and legistlation system, organises information campaigns for example for schools and provides a social space for lgbt-people by organising discussion groups, clubs and parties.


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Jenny Kangasvuo
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