‘Often I find identifying as bisexual is akin to having multiple passports for different countries, all expired.’ — Faith Cheltenham, President of BiNet USA, in ‘Google’s Bisexual Problem’
For a while now I’ve wondered whether or not I should tell my family that I’m bisexual. My friends know, as do the people who follow me online, but because I’ve never been in a meet-the-family kind of same-sex relationship, I haven’t had cause or even an opening to tell my parents, and thirty-five seems a little old for a ‘coming out’ revelation. In some ways describing my sexual preference — bringing it up in conversation — feels akin to discussing my sex life, or at least opening up a part of my personal life that I’ve kept private since crawling out of my crab basket. At the same time, by not telling them, I feel as if I’m remaining closeted, hiding a part of my identity, in some ways being dishonest, or at least, not true to me.
The San Francisco Human Rights Commission describes bisexuality as:
‘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’ —Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations
and reports that:
‘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.’
Advice columnist Dan Savage argues that bisexuals have a duty to come out to their friends, family, even co-workers, because as long as bisexuals remain ‘in the closet’, or pass as straight or gay (mono-sexual), they contribute to their own invisibility and perpetuate the effects of bi-phobia, including being overlooked, ignored, denied, and rejected as ‘too gay’ or ‘not gay enough’.
But is a person’s sexuality anybody’s business but that of the person and their sexual partners?
There are many more bisexual people out there than are publicly acknowledged. This is in part due to assumptions made about sexuality based on social interactions — bisexuals are often assumed to be the sexuality that their current relationship represents — but also because there can be no easy way to make sexuality known without shoving it down people’s throats. Even an individual who has had successive relationships with people of different genders can be assumed to have ‘come out’ as straight or gay, their bisexuality representing a transition or ‘phase’, or perhaps confusion about their sexuality.
On a more subtle but pervasive level, bisexuals can be overlooked in ways that make it impossible for them to be recognised, for instance on official surveys that omit bisexuality as a category, in scientific research which neglects to include bisexuals or that ‘lumps data about bisexuals under “gay” or “lesbian”,’ and even in Google searches that suppress the auto-complete function for bisexuality.
At the other extreme there are individuals who believe (and scientists who try to prove) that bisexuals, particularly male bisexuals, don’t exist.
As a result of this bi-invisibility, services, sexual education, and health issues that are specific to the bi community simply aren’t available, which can have political and personal consequences.
Sexuality activists and spokespeople such as Savage argue that as long as bisexuals ‘pass’ as mono-sexual, they contribute to their own invisibility and perpetuate the effects of bi-phobia, including the belief that ‘bisexuals are confused about their sexuality’, that ‘you can’t trust a bisexual because they aren’t really gay or lesbian, or aren’t really heterosexual’. Bisexuals are also slut-shamed and shunned as potential relationship partners by mono-sexual people who assume they are incapable of monogamy or that they are hyper-sexual and will sleep with anything. Bisexuals have even been blamed for the spread of HIV in the United States.
As long as there is ignorance about bisexuality, and as long as the prevalence of bisexuality remains unknown through bi-invisibility, gay and straight people alike will fear and reject bisexuals, and bisexuals will be denied services that address their needs.
Statistics reveal that ‘bisexual people experience greater health disparities than the broader population, including a greater likelihood of suffering from depression and other mood or anxiety disorders.’ They also have higher rates of suicide than their mono-sexual counterparts.
As willing as I am to be visible and counted among the bisexual community, and to fight for bisexual recognition, forcing a conversation with my apolitical, non-bi-phobic family seems a little too much like activism for its own sake.
It’s a lot harder to make sweeping generalisations and hold onto prejudices when someone you know and love belongs to the group you’re trying to objectify, and almost impossible to deny their existence. Being ‘out’ provides an opportunity to really break down stereotypes, to explain that no, your bisexuality isn’t a ‘phase’ on the way to being gay or straight, that your sexuality isn’t defined by the gender of the partner you happen to be with, and that you aren’t ‘promiscuous’ or ‘incapable of monogamy’ by virtue of being attracted to people of both genders (though you might be more likely to negotiate an honest open relationship).
The political argument assumes a person sees their sexual identity as public, rather than private, and that their sexual identity matches their sexual preference. As the Bisexual Invisibility report found, many people who have an interest in both genders, whether they act on it or not, identify primarily as straight or gay. They consider their sexual identity as distinct from their sexual preference, or irrelevant to anyone but their sex partners.
Being ‘out’ about sexuality also makes it an issue, which can contribute to feelings of isolation, and the sense of belonging to a minority, rather than letting bisexuals blend in, enjoy the advantage of ‘passing’ as mono-sexual and simply be ‘people’.
Dan Savage argues that ‘discussing your sexuality is not a sexual conversation’, that telling people who you sleep with isn’t the same as telling them what you do in bed. This is largely because if you are in a hetero- (or homo-) sexual relationship, the people around you can fill in the blanks. Unless someone is in a publicly acknowledged polyamorous relationship with a person of each gender, it’s not really something that comes up in conversation. Bisexuality can be awkward, uncomfortable and even socially inappropriate to mention — like discussing your sex life as distinct from your relationships. While people might be comfortable revealing this level of detail with their close friends, it’s not the most cosy conversation to have with Grandma or your boss.
I have no doubt that being ‘out’ helps break down a whole series of social expectations and norms imposed upon individuals and that mono-sexuals have certain advantages over bisexuals. I have personally experienced the sense of displacement that comes with not belonging to either the gay or straight communities and witnessed gay people of both genders express their bi-phobia, but my sex life and sexuality are private. Unless I have cause or context, unless the sense of dishonesty to my identity becomes a burden, I will rally for bisexuals, I will share tales of my sexcapades with my friends or online… but I just might not mention it to my folks. Because it’s not a reflection of my political views or my commitment to the recognition of bisexual identity, it’s a reflection of the kind of interpersonal relationships I have, the kinds of topics I normally discuss within those, and the kind of information I am comfortable to share with my mum.