Now that same-sex marriage is legal across the country, and even large corporations are making statements of support of LGBTQ people and against discriminatory laws, it may appear as if barriers for LGBTQ people to live full lives with the same rights as straight, cisgender people are mostly gone. But that varies greatly from individual to individual — as well as from each letter represented in LGBTQ.
Bisexual people, for example, continue to face stigma from both the straight and LGBTQ community that dissuades them from feeling comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation. According to a 2013 Pew Research Poll, only 28 percent of the bisexual people surveyed — most of whom were women — said they were out to all or most of the important people in their lives, compared to 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians.
A study released in June by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health looks more closely at a very specific group of bisexual people who fit this category: bi men with wives or girlfriends who have not come out as bisexual to most of the people in their lives.
Many of the men who participated in the Columbia University study said they were concerned about the stigma they would encounter after coming out. That makes sense given previous research on stigma facing bi people and bi men specifically. Heterosexual men are three times more likely to think bisexuality is not a legitimate sexual orientation, according to a 2013 study by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. The same study found that straight women, gay men, and lesbians hold negative views as well, calling bi people “confused” and “experimental.” Researchers found that bisexual men were particularly affected by these views.
“I would never tell anyone. I’ll go to my grave with this.”
The 203 New York City residents who were surveyed for the new study aren’t necessarily representative of the whole population of bi men, according to Eric Schrimshaw, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University who was involved in the research. But the findings do help illuminate some of the reasons bi men may not disclose their sexuality.
Previous research on disclosure tended to lump bisexual men and gay men together, mostly because that research was focused on HIV, Scrimshaw said. And it didn’t investigate why exactly bi men might feel hesitant to come out.
The men who participated in Schrimshaw’s study provided more insight here. They said they felt their wives and girlfriends would have extreme negative reactions to them coming out as bisexual, suspected their friends would behave differently around them or end their friendships, and worried their family members would distance themselves or disown them completely. Many of the bi men interviewed also voiced the concern that they would simply be considered gay and that their attraction to women would be ignored.
“I would never tell anyone. I’ll go to my grave with this,” one participant said.
Although some of the men mentioned that their male friends have made homophobic remarks, this group of bi men said they would be more likely to feel comfortable with telling a male friend about their sexual orientation than with telling their wives or girlfriends. Twenty-seven percent of the men said they had already told their best male friends.
Schrimshaw pointed out that’s likely because bi men feel like they have less to lose if they disclose their identities to male friends. Losing a friendship over coming out would hurt, of course, but it wouldn’t be as devastating as getting rejected by a parent or broken up with by a girlfriend. Bi men also said they wanted to avoid the chance that female partners would use their sexual orientation as a “weapon” to “get back at” them.
Plus, coming out to a female partner may carry the risk that news of their sexuality would spread to more people in their community. “If the girlfriend broke up with him people are going to say ‘Oh, why?’ and maybe she tells all of her girlfriends and all of their mutual friends why she broke up with him. And so it has this potential for the cat getting out of the bag or to become a much bigger issue than losing one friend,” Schrimshaw said.
“If the girlfriend broke up with him people are going to say ‘Oh, why?’
Despite previous researchers’ focus on black and Latino men as being more likely not to disclose their sexuality or experiencing more stigma in their communities, that isn’t what researchers found in this particular study. Men of all races and ethnicity from traditional and conservative cultures, as well as religious cultures, were particularly concerned about stigma.
“We had an Italian American from Brooklyn talk about the Catholic religion and their Italian-American neighborhood being completely homophobic and therefore they weren’t able to disclose to their friends and families … We had Jewish Orthodox men in the study who would talk about how that too was not acceptable in their community, so in addition to black and Hispanic men we were seeing this happen with all sorts of white and Asian men as well,” Schrimshaw said. “Men link those stigmatizing reactions and that anticipation of stigmatizing reactions to the fact that they are from a particular culture or religion, so it’s an extra factor that facilitates those negative reactions.”
Some of the men also cited experiences where they witnessed judgment of bi or gay men that reinforced their decision to keep their sexual orientation to themselves. A white man in his 40s considered telling his girlfriend about his sexuality. “I thought, if there was anyone I could tell, I could tell her,” he said. But after witnessing her reaction to friend’s husband coming out as gay, he decided he could never tell her. One Latino participant said that when his cousin came out as either bi or gay, his family beat him up and disowned him.
These findings contrast with stereotypes that bisexual men don’t disclose due to their confusion about their identity. Rather, these men used non-disclosure to protect themselves against negative reactions.
Researchers concluded their findings demonstrate the need for public education campaigns to dispel myths about bisexual men — such as assumptions that bisexual men are all actually gay, that they must have HIV, and that all bisexual men are non-monogamous.