The Invisible Woman and the Invisible Man

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Words by Caroline Matthews

We’ve all received those messages from friends telling us to search for something in Google: ‘French military victories’ famously returned nil results, alongside the tongue-in-cheek message ‘Did you mean, ‘French Military Defeats’?’. Another time, Google Maps issued directions from China to Japan including the unlikely instruction to ‘swim across the Pacific Ocean’. So when a friend of mine suggested I Google ‘bisexual’, I was expecting another of the search engine’s quirky and temporary political jokes. What I found wasn’t funny and, unfortunately, wasn’t temporary either. That’s because ‘bisexual’ doesn’t return any Auto-complete suggestions on Google; an issue which has been raised with Google since 2010. Yet despite their rhetoric, bisexual search suggestions remain concealed on Google.

But why does this matter? Google actually outlines this quite well itself in its explanation of the Auto-complete function: ‘As you type … Auto-complete helps you find information quickly by displaying searches that might be similar to the one you’re typing’.

Try it for yourself – try typing ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, or any other term you may want support with. Google then makes suggestions, like ‘lesbian fiction’ or ‘gay pride’, thus highlighting possible areas of interest. Not so for ‘bisexual’. It’s about signposting to support services and relevant topics, including those you might not have been aware of. By leaving out this Auto-complete information for the word ‘bisexual’, they are suggesting that others haven’t been making similar searches – further marginalising a significant but often ostracised group. Yet if we have a look at Google Trends we can see that lots of people actually are making searches with the word ‘bisexual’. It’s just you don’t get to see them.

This is something that The Lesbian and Gay Foundation, and Manchester’s very own bi support group, BiPhoria, have been working to raise awareness of. For despite the much publicised bisexuality of celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga in recent years, the average bisexual still has to battle with living in a world where bisexual erasure is commonplace – ranging from being ignored, to actual denial of the existence of their sexuality. Jen Yockney from BiPhoria explained,

“Imagine you’re questioning your sexuality and try searching for ‘bisexual’ – you’ve heard the claims that there’s no such thing, but it feels real for you. Yet, unlike everything else you’ve ever typed, it suggests nothing. Surely you can’t be the only person to ever look for information about being bi? Yet Google gives you the impression it really is just you.”

“I want Auto-complete to give people the clue that there is support, advice and community out there. For us as a social and support group for bi people, the current set up makes it that bit harder for people to find our services and those of other groups like us around the country. Google should be helping, rather than hindering you, to find the help you need”.

Yet although this issue is being brought to their attention, Google have still failed to fix their ban on ‘bisexual’. It’s a ban that doesn’t even meet any of Google’s legitimate and stated reasons for when Auto-complete is not available – for very unpopular or new searches, or those for hate speeches, for example. For me, it’s all just a little bit Nineteen Eighty-Four. An insidious attempt to remove knowledge – and therefore language – surrounding bisexuality, as if that will then remove the ability for us to think in bi friendly terms. As such, Google continues to choose to make bisexuals isolated, and bisexual issues invisible. 

By far the most popular search engine, Google has been no stranger to criticism for its influence on how we think. Nicholas Carr famously questioned the implications of a search tool which makes us so reliant on instant access to information rather than retained knowledge. Yet its ban on ‘bisexual’ causes me to revise Carr’s question and ask not ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ but ‘Is Google making us ignorant?’ 

‘Bisexual’ isn’t a dirty word. If you agree with this, whatever your sexual identity, you can sign the petition here:

Caroline Matthews is a Mancunian, wife, mother, student and writer.
You can follow her on Twitter @CarolBMatthews

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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