Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts & Recommendations

So from my last post involving bisexuality invisibility some new developments have occurred in the negative as persons identified as gay throwing all kinds of comments regarding bisexuals as being confused to one suggesting bisexuals need not ask for rights as that is a gay thing. I am distraught in a sense as one wonders now how to address this dissent and disrespect for our bisexual colleagues given that there is B in the conveniently used LGBTQ call letters and it means something and not just a space take in the arrangement.

A Note on Language

The term bisexual is imperfect at best. It implies a duality of genders that many people feel erases transgender and gender-variant people. For others, it connotes a requirement of an exact balance between someone’s attractions for women and men, or attractions only to women and men who identify with the genders they were assigned at birth. While pansexual and omnisexual are finding more acceptance, some people feel the terms reinforce a stereotype of promiscuity. More recently, fluid has appeared as a way to describe those attracted to more than one gender, but it is not yet widely used or understood. There are also people who chafe at any label at all.

More broadly, queer is attractive as an umbrella term for non-heterosexuals, but many people still hear it as a pejorative, while others use it as a way to avoid naming or acknowledging those outside monosexual identities. Some who would otherwise self-identify as queer―to indicate their solidarity with the broader community―instead choose to call themselves bisexual specifically to avoid such erasure, even when they are uneasy with the term’s implications around gender.

The good news is that more and more people are comfortable navigating the complexities of human sexuality and gender as they are actually lived. The bad news is that the English language has not yet caught up in expressing that complexity. At this time, there is no clear “best practice” for terminology that fully honors gender diversity while not reinscribing invisibility for nonmonosexuals.

At this moment in the movement for full equality and dignity for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, bisexual is the term that is most widely understood as describing those whose attractions fall outside an either/or paradigm. It is also (along with MSMW and WSMW) the term most often used in research.

As people become increasingly fluent in the dynamics of gender and sexuality, the language will evolve as well. For now, and with full awareness of its limitations, bisexual is the word used in this report.

Bisexual Invisibility

Bisexuality is the capacity for emotional, romantic, and/or physical attraction to more than one sex or gender. A bisexual orientation speaks to the potential for, but not requirement of, involvement with more than one sex/gender.

Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities. Often, the entire sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral, or irrelevant.

Despite years of activism and the largest population within the LGBT community, the needs of bisexuals still go unaddressed and their very existence is still called into question. This erasure has serious consequences on bisexuals’ health, economic well-being, and funding for bi organizations and programs.

As the authors of one study put it, “Bi-invisibility refers to a lack of acknowledgment and ignoring of the clear evidence that bisexuals exist.”

An Invisible Majority

According to several studies, self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States. In each study, more women identified as bisexual than lesbian, and fewer men identified as bisexual than gay.

An Invisible Majority

According to several studies, self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States. In each study, more women identified as bisexual than lesbian, and fewer men identified as bisexual than gay.

In 2010, a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine6, based on a nationally representative probability sample of women and men in the U.S., found that among adults (5,042 respondents), 3.1% self-identified as bisexual, compared to 2.5% as gay/lesbian.

An “Eclipsed and Conflated” Identity

Despite the overwhelming data that bisexuals exist, other people’s assumptions often render bisexuals invisible. Two women holding hands are read as “lesbian,” two men as “gay,” and a man and a woman as “straight.” In reality, any of these people might be bi―perhaps all of them.

The majority of research lumps data on bisexuals under “gay” or “lesbian,” which makes it difficult to draw any conclusions about bisexuals and skews the data about lesbians and gay men. “Thus any particular needs of bisexuals are eclipsed and conflated. Only a handful of studies separate out bisexuals and/or report on their bisexual-specific findings. Fewer compare bisexuals to people who are not bisexual.”

Not Just a Phase

While bisexuality has often been considered merely a “phase” en route to a stable gay or lesbian orientation, it is also a stable sexual orientation in itself. A longitudinal study of sexual minority women (lesbian, bisexual, or unlabeled) found that over 10 years, “more women adopted bisexual/unlabeled identities than relinquished them.” Of those who began the study identifying as bisexual, 92% identified as bisexual or unlabeled 10 years later, and 61% those who began as unlabeled identified as bisexual or unlabeled 10 years later. While no similar long-term study has been done with bisexual men, at least one study suggests that bisexuality can be a stable sexual orientation for men as well.

“The only thing I would change about my sexuality is how others treat me for it.”

My coming out as bi has been both extremely satisfying and saddening. I came out as gay in high school when I was 16. While I thought occasionally about women, I largely discounted these feelings as random daydreams. I had heard that bisexuality was a farce so many times from gay friends, that people who were bisexual were just afraid to come all the way out of the closet, that I never thought of coming out as bisexual when I was younger. I was attracted to men, I didn’t have any shame about this, and I wanted to be recognized.

Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a gay mecca, it is where I first came to recognize my opposite-sex attractions. Being single at college parties, I often found myself in situations where women were hitting on me. I was interested but at the same time befuddled. The idea that my same-sex attractions represented an inflexible and absolute sexuality had become entrenched in my thinking, and I wasn’t prepared to question this. Despite this lack of mental readiness, my desire and curiosity were far greater, and I eventually began sleeping with women. I kept my opposite-sex attractions subordinated, leaving them out of discussions with friends back home and rationalizing them away as mistakes to myself.

After roughly a year, stories began to trickle back to friends and family. As questions and underhanded comments started coming in, I found myself constantly being put on trial. Why was I doing this? Was I closeting myself? Why wasn’t I being “normal,” gay how I should be? In the process of trying to answer these questions for myself and others, I realized how long I had been cheating myself and sublimating my desires to others’ ideas about sexuality.

I came out as bi when I was 19 and have remained so since. Rather than quieting the doubts of others, animosity only intensified. Aggressive queries about when I was going to focus on guys full-time again became a standard part of trips home. On top of this, I noticed a change in how sexual partners treated me. Women I was with, no longer with the safety of presuming me straight, would question my real orientation and complain that my sexuality made them anxious that I would one day vanish into a relationship with a man. Men I was with wouldn’t acknowledge my sexuality, referring to me as gay despite my protest. I found myself in relationships waiting for accusations and dismissive comments, ready from the start to move along to someone new. I am happy with my sexuality, and very grateful that I was finally able to fully realize my desires. The only thing I would change about my sexuality is how others treat me for it. Finding my sexuality has been wonderful. I only wish I didn’t have to sacrifice feeling safe, feeling part of a community, and feeling like I have anyone to confide in but myself.

– Jack M., 21, male

An Invisible Place in History

Bisexuals find themselves erased in history. Many famous people―such as Marlene Dietrich, June Jordan, Freddie Mercury, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman―have been labeled as lesbian or gay for their same-sex relationships, yet their long-term relationships with different-sex partners are ignored or their importance minimized. This disrespects the truth of their lives for the sake of a binary conception of sexual orientation. It also makes it more difficult for bisexuals just coming out to find role models.

This historical erasure also extends to activists. Rather than acknowledging the decades of hard work bisexuals have done in the LGBT movement, many gays and lesbians have accused bisexuals of trying to “ride their coattails.” In fact, bisexuals have often been leaders in the movement. In just one example, it was a bisexual woman, Brenda Howard, who organized the one-month anniversary rally in honor of the Stonewall uprising (which in turn was led by transsexuals and drag queens). Then a year later, she organized a march and celebration that turned into New York’s annual pride parade and inspired countless other pride celebrations around the world. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that bisexuals and transgender people had to fight for inclusion in the name of San Francisco Pride, one of the last major U.S. cities to do so.

Bisexual Exclusion

Often, the word “bisexual” shows up in an organization’s name or mission statement, but the group doesn’t offer programming that addresses the specific needs of bisexuals (see the chapter on organizations and programs serving bisexuals). Even when an organization is inclusive, the press and public officials often fall back on the “safety” of saying just “gay and lesbian.” There is even a growing trend of talking about the “gay, lesbian, and transgender” community or “lesbian, gay, and transgender” movement. But words matter. Invisibility matters. Bisexuals find themselves excluded in other ways as well. Many personal ads have specified “no bis” in their criteria.

Bisexual and Transgender Allies in Invisibility

“From the earliest years of the bi community, significant numbers of [transgender people] have always been involved in it. The bi community served as a kind of refuge for people who felt excluded from the established lesbian and gay communities.”

— Kevin Lano (Alexander, J. & Yescavage, K. (2003). Bisexuality and transgenderism: InterSEXions of the others. Journal of Bisexuality, 3(3/4). p. 8, as quoted in Miller et al. (2007).

That quote reflects the actual similarities to our Jamaican scenario as well as several bisexuals remain quiet on their opposite sex attraction in fear of a backlash or avoiding confrontation with sometimes paranoid reactions when such disclosures are made.

Other Forms of Biphobia

Bisexual invisibility is one of many manifestations of biphobia. Others include:

 Assuming that everyone you meet is either heterosexual or homosexual.

 Supporting and understanding a bisexual identity for young people because you identified “that way” before you came to your “real” lesbian/gay/heterosexual identity.

 Automatically assuming romantic couplings of two women are lesbian, or two men are gay,or a man and a woman are heterosexual.

 Expecting a bisexual to identify as gay or lesbian when coupled with the “same” sex/gender.

 Expecting a bisexual to identify as heterosexual when coupled with the “opposite”sex/gender.

 Believing that bisexual men spread HIV/AIDS to heterosexuals.

 Believing that bisexual women spread HIV/AIDS to lesbians.

 Thinking bisexual people haven’t made up their minds.

 Refusing to accept someone’s self-identification as bisexual if the person hasn’t had sex with both men and women.

 Expecting bisexual people to get services, information, and education from heterosexual service agencies for their “heterosexual side” and then go to gay and/or lesbian service agencies for their “homosexual side.”

 Feeling bisexuals just want to have their cake and eat it too.

 Assuming a bisexual person would want to fulfill your sexual fantasies or curiosities.

 Thinking bisexuals only have committed relationships with “opposite” sex/gender partners.

 Being gay or lesbian and asking your bisexual friends about their lovers or whom they are dating only when that person is the “same” sex/gender.

 Assuming that bisexuals, if given the choice, would prefer to be in an “opposite” gender/sex coupling to reap the social benefits of a so-called “heterosexual” pairing.

 Assuming bisexuals would be willing to “pass” as anything other than bisexual.

 Believing bisexuals are confused about their sexuality.

 Feeling that you can’t trust a bisexual because they aren’t really gay or lesbian, or aren’t really heterosexual.

 Refusing to use the word bisexual in the media when reporting on people attracted to more than one gender, instead substituting made-up terms such as “gay-ish.”

 Using the terms “phase” or “stage” or “confused” or “fence-sitter” or “bisexual” or“AC/DC” or “switch-hitter” as slurs or in an accusatory way. Switch hitter locally has a connotation in lower classes of some acceptance especially if the named persons are gender conforming to onlookers.

 Assuming bisexuals are incapable of monogamy.

 Feeling that bisexual people are too outspoken and pushy about their visibility and rights.

 Looking at a bisexual person and automatically thinking of her/his sexuality rather than seeing her/him as a whole, complete person.

 Not confronting a biphobic remark or joke for fear of being identified as bisexual.

 Assuming bisexual means “available.”

 Thinking that bisexual people will have their rights when lesbian and gay people win theirs.

 Expecting bisexual activists and organizers to minimize bisexual issues (such as HIV/AIDS, violence, basic civil rights, military service, same-sex marriage, child custody, adoption, etc.) and to prioritize the visibility of so-called “lesbian and/or gay” issues.

 Avoiding mentioning to friends that you are involved with a bisexual or working with a bisexual group because you are afraid they will think you are a bisexual.

As an example of the extent and depth of biphobia, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research reported that heterosexuals rate bisexuals as a group less favorably than any of a number of groups (including Catholics, lesbians, people with AIDS, and people who are pro-life), except for the category of people who inject illegal drugs.

Bisexual Health Issues within HIV and STI Prevention

There are health issues that are specific and generalizeable to bisexuals as a group and health issues that are specific and generalizeable to people who have partners of more than one gender as a group. This literature review shines a spotlight on specific challenges related to HIV and STI prevention among bisexuals, WSMW, and MSMW.

Unfortunately, existing research on this topic is scarce. Much of it lumps bisexuals into either “lesbian” or “gay male” categories, making it difficult to draw any conclusions about bisexual health.

Data on bisexual women’s sexual health is less prevalent than men’s, particularly data on WSMW.

Additionally, not all researchers take into consideration whether their study participants identify as bisexual, MSMW, WSMW, or something else.

It is important to recognize that many, if not most, bisexual people do not come out to their health care providers or to researchers due to judgments that silence, stereotypes that shame, and assumptions that erase bisexual identity. When a woman is partnered and says she is using birth control, there may be an automatic assumption that she is monogamous and heterosexual. A man in a same-sex relationship is assumed to be gay and therefore not in need of information about sex with women. When a man says he is married or partnered, there are often no subsequent questions asked about other sexual partners. Health care providers need to become aware of how to serve this often-overlooked community and its unique concerns, looking at a patient’s sexual behavior rather than simply a patient’s sexual identity.

Some have simply chosen to be invisible in one stigmatized category by wearing the mark of another.

Some Recommendations

One of the challenges―and frustrations―for bisexuals and their allies is that so much invisibility persists despite decades of educational efforts. One long-time activist described it as “sweeping sand.” While many people and organizations have certainly become more welcoming and inclusive of bisexuals over the years, others remain inconsistent, oblivious, or occasionally hostile. The question becomes how to create institutional changes that remain even if a bi-supportive leader, staff person, or volunteer moves on.

 Educate the public, advocates and elected officials about inclusive language (for example, “anti-LGBT bias” rather than “homophobia”) and ensure its use whenever possible and accurate. Review the STI brochures offered in Public Health and, if needed, encourage them to adopt models created (one that addresses those who identify as bisexual and one for those who don’t).

 Work with the Public Health systems to ensure that data collection addresses the experiences of bisexuals accurately and consistently.

 Share this blog post and similar ones on what bi-specific programming they have, if any; whether their programs that say they serve bisexuals are welcoming in practice; and how the content of their programming changes to address the needs of bisexuals.

 Include specific, separate information on bisexuality in diversity trainings.

 Ensure that bisexuals are included among the speakers when there are panels, forums, and other official discussions affecting the LGBT community.

Many assumptions lie at the core of bisexual invisibility: assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based on her/his partner’s gender; about bisexuals people’s reliability, honesty, or commitment to the LGBT movement; about bisexuals’ health concerns and needs; and about the world as an “either/or” place rather than one of infinite variety. Any long-term solutions must dispel these assumptions to make room for those whose lives exist beyond binaries.

Think on these things friends.

Aspects of this blog post garnered from:

Peace and tolerance


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