Happy Pride Month, y’all! I’m devoting this month’s column to recognizing one of the oft-overlooked groups in our beautiful LGBTQIA rainbow: bisexuals.
Written by Erin Riedel, LCSW | Illustration by Branden Barker
Bisexuals tend to fly under the radar. Sometimes our relationships look straight, rendering our queerness invisible. Sometimes people – gay and straight alike – insist that we don’t exist at all. But we are in fact both here and queer. We come in a lot of different varieties – and sometimes don’t even use the word “bisexual” to describe ourselves at all – which can make us a little confusing. So, I’m here to tell you everything you need to know about being bi – including what to do if you’re a little bicurious yourself.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 5.5% of women identify as bisexual, and over 17% of women have had sex with partners of more than one gender. So a lot of women have bisexual experiences, even if we’re not identifying that way. You might think that being bi simply means being attracted to men and women, but it’s actually a little more complicated than that. “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree,” says bisexual writer and activist Robyn Ochs. Some people who experience multi-gender attraction have adopted the term pansexual– the prefix “pan-“ meaning “all” – to indicate attraction to men, women, and people who fall outside the gender binary. But Ochs explains that for her, the “bi” in bisexual refers to the duality of being attracted to people of one’s own gender as well as people of multiple other genders. Each person has to decide which term resonates most for them, but whether we identify as bisexual, pansexual, queer, or something else, there are plenty of us sharing the experience of multi-gender attraction.
Like every other group under the LGBTQIA umbrella, bisexuals are the target of a number of myths and stereotypes. We’re confused. We’ll have sex with anyone. We’re actually gay but afraid to admit it. It’s just a phase. There’s actually nothing wrong with any of these things; sexuality can be confusing, and fluid, and can involve a lot of different partners. But these stereotypes are harmful because they invalidate and erase the reality of bisexuality that many people experience. Interestingly, though, these stereotypes aren’t even really about us.
“The stereotypes exist for reasons that have nothing to do with bisexual people,” explains Ochs. “We are binary in our thinking as a culture, which leads us to think that there’s only gay or straight, that something in the middle can’t be real. And sex negativity in our culture plays out in dangerous ways. When people learn our identity they sexualize us, and they’re not comfortable with sex, so they’re not comfortable with us. Many people’s responses have nothing to do with us.”
According to the Human Rights Commission, bisexuals are more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders than their lesbian and gay counterparts.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes can come from the LGBTQIA community as well as from straight people, making biphobia and homophobia overlapping but distinct phenomena. Most bisexual people have encountered gay people who won’t date them; there’s often a belief that we’re not really queer, or an expectation that we’ll eventually leave our same-gender partner for a different-gender one. A lesbian I once dated told me when we broke up that she thought I was only dating her to make my ex-boyfriend jealous, an accusation that was both untrue and painful. My worst fear as a bisexual had been realized: a gorgeous, intelligent, amazing woman had deemed my bisexual self Not Queer Enough, had automatically implicated my bisexuality in our break-up, even though other incompatibilities had been the true cause.
Bisexuality also often comes with the burden of having to come out over and over again. People assume we’re straight when we’re with different-gender partners (or, often, when we’re single – hello, heteronormativity!) and assume we’re gay when we’re with same-gender partners. When we’re with one partner for a long time, it’s even easier for our bisexuality to recede into the background, making bisexual erasure a very real thing. “It’s difficult to experience that erasure, that loneliness,” notes Ochs. “Not knowing who else is like you, not feeling like you have the right to take up space in queer spaces. It can be very isolating.”
These struggles have real-world implications. According to the Human Rights Commission, bisexuals are more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders than their lesbian and gay counterparts. Bisexual youth are less likely than gay, lesbian, and straight youth to say they have a supportive adult in their lives. The Bisexual Resource Center notes that 40% of bisexuals have thought about or attempted suicide, compared to just over 25% of gays and lesbians. We’re also more likely to be victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
I mention these bleak statistics not because I’m complaining about how hard it is to be bisexual; I love being bisexual. I love having the capacity for attraction to and connection with all kinds of different people. I raise these concerns so that I can also speak to the importance of the solutions: the need for education, visibility, and community that includes and supports bisexuals. We’re not always the most visibly queer, but we are in fact the largest self-identified group within the LGBTQIA community. Our needs and experiences matter.
Erin Riedel, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice who specializes in working with sexual minorities.