Let’s talk about the B in LGBTQ. A recent CDC poll found that 5.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men aged 18-44 identify as bisexual, which is significantly higher than the percentage of women and men who identify as lesbian/gay (1.3 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively). Even many people who don’t identify as bi have swung both ways at least once: 17.4 percent of women and 6.3 percent of men age 18-44 surveyed have had some same-sex contact.
Yet we don’t hear all that much about bi rights. But bisexual people still face discrimination, often from unexpected sources. Here are just a few of them.
Mental Health Professionals
YouTube vlogger Connor Manning recounted an awful encounter with a therapist who told him that he isn’t really bisexual. Instead of offering him proper treatment, the therapist spent a half hour trying to convince him not to call himself bi.
About the incident, Connor says,
What if I was someone who was freshly questioning their sexuality? …For a lot of people, especially those seeking help for their mental health, these things are an issue and they’re confusing and scary. To have someone who’s supposed to be a resource I can trust, someone I can open up to, try and invalidate my identity was really deeply sad to me. I also talked to a few people about it after the fact and they told me that this is something that happens all the time, unfortunately.
Research confirms this. A 2007 study published by Columbia University Press found that more than a quarter of therapists assumed their bisexual clients needed therapy for their sexuality. About a sixth saw bisexuality as a symptom of mental illness. Seven percent of therapists in the study tried to convert their bisexual clients to heterosexuality; 4 percent tried to turn their bisexual clients gay or lesbian.
Unfortunately, the misconception that bisexuality isn’t a real, unique sexual identity is very common. It’s so common that bi rights activists have an expression for it: bi erasure. Bi erasure is pretty much what it sounds like: Insisting that bisexuality isn’t real and that bisexuals are “really” just confused straight or gay people.
Faith Cheltenham of BiNet USA says that bisexuality is often subsumed under ‘gay’, but in reality “being gay is as different from being straight as being bi is. It’s not being half straight, half gay… you’re going to have a completely different life cycle experience from your gay peers.”
A young bisexual person going through that unique life cycle might feel lonely and confused and seek a therapist for help. If that therapist just turns around and tries to suppress their sexuality, it’s devastating.
What’s especially alarming about this is the fact that bisexuals (especially bisexual women) suffer from mental health problems at a higher rate than the rest of the population. They need help more often, but they’re less likely to get it if they have to fight uphill just to have their sexuality acknowledged as real.
Since 1994, United States immigration policies have recognized persecution for LGBTQ status as grounds for asylum. However, it’s not always easy for bisexual people to gain asylum. In correspondence with Unicorn Booty, Apphia Kumar, a bi rights activist, wrote that Immigration officers aren’t properly trained to handle bisexual asylum seekers, and often don’t understand it. “They have the incorrect perception that bisexuality is a choice or can be hidden in the face of persecution or that our identities depend on the gender of our partners.”
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit denied a bisexual Jamaican man asylum on the grounds that the man wasn’t “really” bisexual. Why not? Because he was married to a woman, even though he had dated men before and had been repeatedly assaulted for having sex with men.
Claiming that someone isn’t “really” bisexual because they’re currently an opposite-sex relationship is like claiming that someone isn’t really bilingual because they only speak one language at a time. It’s a ridiculous attitude based on broken logic. But immigration officials, even well-meaning ones, reinforce this misconception. Via email, Kumar noted that immigration lawyers often don’t understand bisexuality or they don’t consider it strong enough for an asylum claim, so “to increase the chances of someone getting asylum, they advise the asylum seeker to apply as gay or lesbian. This in fact increases the trauma of invisibility and doesn’t allow us to be our true selves in the long run.”
Bisexual people face a higher rate of intimate partner violence than straight or gay people. According to a 2010 survey by the CDC, a staggering 61 percent of bisexual women are raped, physically abused and/or stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetimes, compared to 44 percent of lesbians and 35 percent of heterosexual women.
Bisexual men face unusually high rates of domestic violence as well: The number is 37 percent of bisexual men, compared to 26 percent of gay men and 29 percent of heterosexual men. Interestingly, the majority of this violence is coming from an opposite-sex partner. Ninety percent of bisexual women report being abused only by a male partner, and 79 percent of bisexual men report being abused by female partners.
Why is the rate so high? LGBTQ-rights activists say it comes from cultural stereotypes that paint bisexual people as immortal and undependable. Queer activist Lola Davidson writes, “A big factor of violence towards bisexuals comes from the oversexualization of bisexuality in the media and pornography. Bisexuals are often portrayed as very promiscuous and morally-ambiguous, often cheating on their partners or threatening their identity in some way.”
Stephanie Farnsworth also believes that anti-bisexual domestic violence comes from insecurity and fear of infidelity. She writes, “Checking through messages, demanding that no alone time is spent with a person of any gender and isolating one from friends suddenly becomes the norm because bisexuality is still read as wanting to have sex with anyone and everyone even though this disregards the logic that no one would ever expect a heterosexual person to fancy everyone of a different gender to them.”
We can find an example in this in the allegedly abusive relationship between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard and the media’s trashy response to it. Gossip rags suggested that Depp’s violence stemmed from Heard’s bisexuality, that he was afraid she would cheat on him with a woman.
Sadly, when bisexuals are abused, they might not have anywhere to go for help. At a Bisexual Community Issues Roundtable at the White House, one bi survivor of intimate partner violence told a heartbreaking story about being rejected by a battered women’s shelter:
The shelter staff told me I didn’t belong there, that they only served women abused by male partners. They referred me to a new gay community anti-battering project. That group also turned me away, saying that I was bisexual, not gay, so they couldn’t help me. What I felt too angry and defeated to say back then was, “Why can’t services be designed with bisexuals in mind? If we design services sensitive to bisexuals, they end up being responsive to both heterosexual and gay people, too, don’t they?”
Unfortunately, the media does a lot to reinforce negative stereotypes about bisexuality.
On television and in film, bisexual characters are usually portrayed as schemers, manipulators, and hedonists. Depraved bisexuals are so common in fiction that they even have their own TV Tropes entry. Here are just a few well-known examples from the list of evil, unhinged, monstrous bisexual characters:
- Mr. Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, a murderer and a con artist
- Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, who kills, beats and sexually assaults men and women
- Crassus in Spartacus, who sexually abuses his slaves
- Akira in Man From Reno
- Raoul Silva, the villain in Skyfall, who threatens Bond with sexual violence
- Dorian Gray from The Portrait of Dorian Gray
- Lee Garner Jr., the asshole tobacco executive who got Sal fired on Mad Men
Obviously, it’s not inherently wrong to portray a bisexual character as a bad person. But it’s a problem when an overwhelming number of dramas associate bisexuality with evil.
That Depraved Bisexual trope mostly applies to male characters. Female bisexuality is often presented as a performance meant to titillate men, or a way for a woman to sow her wild oats before settling down and having a “real” relationship with a man. The Daily Beast writes:
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to unpack the appeal of this falsified narrative of bisexuality. The concept of a bisexual or lesbian woman who needs to be “saved” from her own sexuality is essentially a revamping of the classic damsel in distress narrative, with the male character’s conquering masculinity cast in the role of hero. The character of the bisexual woman offers the potential for a killer combination of girl-on-girl action paired with the possibility of heterosexual redemption.
Non-fiction isn’t much better than entertainment media. Bi erasure abounds here, as news publications and biographers have a hard time acknowledging that bisexuality even exists. Many real-life bisexuals, past and present, end up referred to as either straight or gay. When actress Amber Heard announced that she had a girlfriend at a GLAAD event in 2010, the press called her a lesbian.
When actress Anna Paquin discussed her marriage to actor Stephen Moyer, Larry King asked her some really clueless questions:
King: “Are you a non-practicing bisexual?”
Paquin: “Well, I am married to my husband and we are happily monogamously married.”
King: “But you were bisexual?”
Paquin: “Well, I don’t think it’s a past-tense thing.”
Larry King: “No?”
Larry King, syndicated talk show host, holds a weirdly common misconception that bisexuality means constantly having sex with men and women simultaneously.
The LGBTQ Community
The queer community treats bisexuals like a redheaded stepchild. Gays and lesbians often have the same negative attitude toward bisexuality that straight people do. A survey published in the The Journal of Bisexuality found that bisexual people receive only a little less discrimination from gays than they do from straights.
Bisexuals make up about half of the queer community and have always played a significant role in the LGBTQ rights movement, but they receive disproportionately little support in return. In Forty Years of LGBTQ Philanthropy: 1970-2010, Funders for LGBTQ Issues reports that bisexuals receive the least amount of funding out of all targeted LGBTQ sub-groups, less than 0.1 percent. Gay men received the most funding.
Back in 1999, Dan Savage told gay men not to get into relationships with bisexual men. Savage has softened toward bisexuals since then and insists he’s not biphobic, but in a more recent thinkpiece, he totally dismissed the concept of biphobia and suggested that bisexuals were to blame for discrimination against them because they weren’t out enough. Savage also wrote that it is “difficult for me to accept a bisexual teenage boy’s professed sexual identity at face value.” That’s not very different from clueless straight people who think that gay teens are just going through a phase. Coming out as bi is hard enough without getting shade from the people who are supposed to be your allies.
Bi people have to fight to make their voices heard in the queer rights movement. When they express their sexuality, they are often met with hostility. Bi activist RJ Aguiar says that when he wore his #StillBisexual shirt to the 2016 LA Pride Parade, he was “met with a lot of silent, sideways looks, and even the occasional remark like, ‘What are you doing here? This isn’t for you. Go home.’ “
Telling a bisexual person that they’re not welcome at an LGBTQ Pride Event is appalling. The queer community has to do better, and stop trying to chase the B out of LGBTQ.
(Featured image via Charles Hutchins/Flickr)