How would you react if your partner came out to you as bisexual? Although many us might like to think we’d be completely fine with it, for many of the population thoughts such as “Will they be unfaithful or leave me for another man/woman?” “Is this just a phase, maybe they’re confused?” and “Does this mean they’re actually gay, but not ready to tell me?” Would likely come to mind. Why is it that bisexuality generates so much suspicion and doubt?
Bisexuality is an umbrella term that may cover many different kinds of identity, including individuals who are not attracted exclusively to one gender, people of fluid and flexible sexuality, individuals who do not see gender as an important factor in attraction and those who dispute the concept of a gender binary in their sexual attraction. A bisexual need not actively engage in relationships with people of different genders or have an equal preference for different genders. Not all individuals who fit with the used definitions may actually use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves, picking a more precise term or preferring not to label themselves.
A recent Bisexuality report published in the UK highlighted the problem of stigma and ‘bi-phobia’, discrimination and prejudice against bisexuals based on their sexuality, often coming from both the gay and straight community. This can often center on beliefs that bisexuals are confused, promiscuous, greedy or not acknowledging that bisexuality truly exists.
Presentations of bisexuals in the media have often conformed to stereotypes and further perpetuated myths. Female bisexuals are often presented as people who break up relationships, tease and generally exist for the fantasies of heterosexual men, ‘lipstick lesbians’ who may kiss girls for attention. Bisexual men are an even lesser spotted species, often considered to be an insecure individual’s ‘stepping stone’ before fully coming out as gay. Bisexual relationships are often presented as either a rebellious phase (for example, in The OC) or as a stage before a character comes out a ‘fully’ gay (such as in Glee). Much fuss was made of ‘gay cowboy movie’ Brokeback Mountain, with few reviewers taking into account that the film featured two men who engage sexually and emotionally with both men and women! Much progress has been made in recent years about tackling homophobia, but prejudices against bisexuals are rife and even seen in the communities that seek to promote gay rights. This can lead to bisexuals feeling alienated and feeling they must conform to either a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ identity in order to be accepted.
Most worryingly, the report draws attention to the high levels of distress and poorer mental health than both homosexual and heterosexual groups, including high levels of depression, suicide, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. This has been linked to the before-mentioned ‘double discrimination’ and lack of support and recognition in society. Far from the notion that bisexuals ‘have it easy’, these statistics suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the way we perceive and treat these individuals.
So, what can be done? The report makes mention of ‘bisexual invisibility’, an absence of recognition of this variation of sexuality in the media and society as a whole. Judgements about sexuality are often made based on a person’s current relationship, their involvement in the gay community and even their appearance (think gay stereotypes of dress and style). A bisexual does not cease to be a bisexual if they marry an opposite sex partner, or same sex partner, or even if they choose to not be in a relationship at all!
There are few visible role-models for bisexuals, just as there are few visible role-models for gender and LGBT campaigning and activism often makes very little mention of the ‘B’. In recent discussion over same-sex marriages and in LGBT groups and events (such as Pride) there is often little visible representation for the bisexual community. This is however, beginning to change. Celebrities such as Jessie J and Evan Rachel Wood have been vocal about their own bisexuality, whilst refusing to let it be sensationalised and twisted into the stuff of laddish fantasies.
Organisations such as The Bisexual Index and BI-UK seek to actively challenge bi-phobia and give bisexuals a voice both within and separate to the lesbian and gay community. Those who wish to support their work can do it best by confronting their own assumptions and challenging every-day jokes, comments and remarks that serve to denigrate and degrade the bisexual community. Perhaps more-so than their gay and straight counter-parts, bisexuals may not be immediately identifiable and the impact of this kind of ‘casual’ stigmatisation can be hard to detect, but an open-minded attitude and sensitivity can be a force for good in supporting bisexuals and helping them to become a more visible and integrated part of the UK’s community.