Erasing reality: bisexual people still face prejudice and stereotyping in the community

Stereotypes about bisexuality are still common within both the queer and straight communities. Chris O’Donnell takes a closer look at a some of the issues that bisexual people face.

Close-up of two women about to kiss with bisexual colours

Bi-visibility day takes place on September 23 at the end of Bisexual Awareness Week. It’s been happening for 20 years now since it first kicked off in Johannesburg in 1997, but there is still a long way to go in terms of social acceptance and understanding of bisexuality. To rather succinctly pose the question, as one bisexual journalist – Anna Broster – did, “Because of ‘passing privilege’ (the idea that bisexual people can pass as heterosexual by being in a romantic relationship with someone of a different sex) we’re often treated as not being gay enough for the queer community and not straight enough to be heterosexual. So, where does that leave bisexuals?”

I spoke to Marie from Galway who is in her mid-30’s. She recounted some of the things which were tied to her experience as a bisexual woman: “I think some people have misunderstood being bi; they think that when you are bisexual that you are confused. Like, they think that maybe you’re a lesbian but you’re not sure, or that you’re just a ‘tourist’.

“People don’t really understand that you can like a man or a woman or a trans person, or any other person on the spectrum. They think it’s binary – you’re either heterosexual, or you’re absolutely lesbian or gay. They don’t understand that sexuality can be fluid.”

I asked Marie about the research reporting susceptibilities to mental health issues in bisexual identity (as well as other underrepresented groups on the queer spectrum). She responded that “There can be moments of depression and anxiety. Yeah, I think it rings true.”

As denoted in the Bisexuality Report of 2012 in the UK – “Depictions of bisexuality in the media are gendered. Bisexual women are generally more likely to be portrayed not only as promiscuous but as an object of concern with regards to their capacity to break up relationships. Bisexual men, on the other hand, are more likely to be regarded as not existing at all or to be portrayed as being feminine in some way. The BBC conducted its own audience consultation on the portrayal of LGB people in 2010.

Respondents noted their dissatisfaction with the invisibility of bisexual people across the BBC’s output, and their concerns that “bisexual identity was too often portrayed as a behaviour and not a valid sexual orientation”. Sarah from Monaghan who is in her late 20’s has had her own run-ins with both direct and indirect discrimination on account of her bisexuality. As she recounted: “I have never told certain members of my family, like my grandparents, about my previous relationships with the same sex, as they are extremely religious. Looking back I always considered myself as resilient and unafraid of people’s judgement, but that wasn’t the case. As they were from an older generation and so sternly set in their beliefs, I didn’t want to upset them or get into an argument with them when at the end of the day I didn’t need their validation to be me.”

Sarah continued: “I told my mother when I was a teenager and her first response was to laugh and scoff at the idea, although she has since become supportive.”

According to a social science investigation and analysis in the US in 2016: “Bisexual individuals are a minority within sexual minority communities, and the overall bisexual experience is often rendered invisible in research that groups this orientation with gay/lesbian samples, or with heterosexual samples instead of looking at the experience of bisexuals as wholly distinct and unique.”

Sarah’s judgement on the greatest stigma for her as bisexual was in this exact vein: “I think the biggest judgement towards bisexual people is that it’s not a real thing. [They say] things like; ‘You will grow out of it. You’re just playing around and trying to find yourself until you choose one gender and stick to it’.”

Depressingly enough, the same paper from 2016 which I quoted earlier references three academic studies stating that bisexuality does not exist. This plays into the trap of mono-sexism, which deigns that only gay or straight identities exist: yet another heuristic of the strictly binary parameters that can often be superimposed on a bisexual person. This only serves to reinforce stigma and secrecy around bisexual identities.

Take Roisín from Dublin in her mid-30’s who has experienced a lot of negative experiences around her bisexuality: “I’m not out as a bi woman. I told my Mam I had sex with a woman and she was disgusted. I also had a group of friends when I was younger, mostly gay and lesbian, and they told me I couldn’t be both. That didn’t deter me straight away. I still would go [to clubs] and try to meet women. I felt wrong in who I was. I didn’t and still don’t at times have a very strong sense of myself. There are times where I own it and I say ‘Yes, I’m a bi woman’, but I mostly keep it low key.”

So what does this erasure say about bisexual identities? There is evidence to suggest that bisexual individuals are among the most vulnerable of the groups within the LGBT+ spectrum. According to a report by Agnes Higgins in conjunction with BeLonG To, GLEN, and LGBT Ireland, Ireland’s “Prolific culture of… biphobia can lead to internalised heterosexism and shame about one’s own LGBT+ identity”. Furthermore, the report outlined that: “bisexual participants had statistically significantly lower mean self-esteem scores compared to gay males and lesbian/gay females”.

The report also conveyed that many bisexual participants expressed ambiguous responses with relation to feelings towards their own sexuality. They emphasised both pride at being out, but also a sense of fear around it. Take, for example, this quote from an unnamed bi woman (21), summing up the report with succinct profundity: “The fact that I am different (bi) is the very reason that I am proud and not proud.”

Put short, bisexual populations have higher levels of distress and mental health difficulties than gay and lesbian groups. In fact, The Bisexuality Report states that the ratio of bisexual individuals to heterosexuals is significantly higher than that of strictly gay/lesbian relationships. As it outlines: “US surveys have tended to find self-identified bisexual people to be the largest population within the broader group of LGB people. If we define the term ‘bisexual’ broadly as all people who have ever had an attraction to more than one gender, then this may be a significant minority, or even majority, of the population.”

This poses serious questions about the extent to which people are ready to deny bisexual feelings or experiences. If, as Marie suggested, we could understand sexuality as more of a fluid entity for bisexual people, and simply accept it for what it is, we would go a long way towards making this particular cohort more accepted into the folds of their queer family. Not only do we have to recognise that there is discrimination in other queer groups against bisexuals, the aforementioned stereotypes and misunderstandings around bisexuality can only be dismantled if we are to truly think outside of the box of monosexism – for both same-sex and opposite-sex bisexual partners.

This acknowledgement feels some way off yet. In my two years working as a journalist with trans, intersex, and non-binary people, it has never been as difficult to find people willing to be interviewed on the topic of their sexuality. What’s more, even under such conditions of strict anonymity, I could not identify a single male interviewee. It is telling that every person in this piece has changed their name to protect their anonymity.

This story was originally published in GCN Issue 360.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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