Bisexual people still face insidious stigma from inside LGBTQ community

About half of the LGBTQ community identifies as bi+. So why aren’t they represented?

CREDIT: Screenshot/Grey’s Anatomy
CREDIT: Screenshot/Grey’s Anatomy

Whenever I do a presentation on the bisexual community, one of the first statistics I mention is that numerous studies on the LGBTQ community — from the Kinsey report to contemporary surveys — suggest that between 40 to 50 percent of the LGBTQ community identifies as bisexual.

That means there are about the same number of bisexual people as there are gay men and lesbians combined.

When I mention these stats, the response from LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people alike is one of surprise and even disbelief — “But I know so many more gay and lesbian people than bisexual people.” Some even ask me what bisexual people have to complain about, since we can “choose” to pass as straight.

Just to reiterate — about half of the entire LGBTQ community identifies as bisexual, queer, pansexual, fluid, or otherwise non-monosexual (bi+). Yet, even as a bi+ community advocate, I struggle to name a few openly bi+ people in leadership positions in national LGBTQ organizations, in government or politics (go Kate Brown!), or in the media and popular culture.

Bisexual historical figures like writer James Baldwin or Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, both of whom openly used the term “bisexual” to describe themselves and had relationships with men and women throughout their lives, are remembered as “gay icons.”

Bisexual people are everywhere, and we are nowhere, rendered invisible even within the movement that purports to represent us. And because of that stigma and erasure, we are suffering immensely compared to gay men, lesbians, and non-LGBTQ people.

The most recent example of this systemic invisibility and exclusion is the ABC mini-series When We Rise, by esteemed gay filmmaker Dustin Lance Black. The series is billed as the story of a “diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer” the modern LGBTQ rights movement, and focuses on histories that have not previously been told.

Even still, bi+ advocates have leveled criticism at the series and its creator for all but entirely excluding bi+ movement leaders.

When We Rise was difficult television for me to watch,” wrote bi trans leader Martin Rawlings-Fein, who serves as co-director of the Bay Area Bisexual Network. Rawlings-Fein had hoped to see numerous bisexual leaders represented for the essential roles they played in the struggle. “In the end of the miniseries none of that happened. I was only watching gay, lesbian, and transgender stories depicted.”

In the words of another bay area bisexual leader, Lani Ka’ahumanu, “When LGBT people rose in San Francisco, we rose together. Bisexuals worked shoulder to shoulder with Cleve Jones, Ken Jones, Roma Guy and Cecilia Chung whose lives are featured.”

On the history of HIV and AIDS activism, for example, bi writer Eliel Cruz explains:

“Not only was the bi community suffering because of the HIV/AIDS, they were fighting it. While the media was busy scapegoating bi men for spreading the disease to women, bi activists like Dr. David Lourea and Cynthia Slater were out raising awareness and offering sex education in the same sex spaces of San Francisco. In fact, throughout the history of ‘gay rights’ bi activists and allies have been consistently erased, it is sad to see that When We Rise is continuing to do so.”

But sadly, it’s not just When We Rise. When bisexual people do see themselves on screen, in the media or in LGBTQ community histories, stereotypes and stigma abound. We are portrayed as promiscuous, unstable, looking for attention, or greedy — that is if our identities are even taken seriously.

Bisexuality is real. Biphobia is real too, and so are its consequences.

Bisexual actress Sara Ramirez, who has also called out the bi erasure in When We Rise, recently criticized the ABC show The Real O’Neals, for example, after the show featured a “joke” comparing bisexuality to having “webbed toes” or “money problems.”

“[The showrunners] do not seem to understand that the joke feeds biases — some unconscious, some outward, some internalized — against bisexuality from within and outside of the LGBTQ community,” said Ramirez in a statement on Twitter.

Callie Torres, the Grey’s Anatomy character Ramirez played for many seasons, is one of the only self-identified bisexual characters in network television history that wasn’t hugely problematic, and she is no longer on the show.

I wrote recently on my own experiences with biphobia and the profound lack of bi+ inclusion within mainstream LGBTQ organizations and community groups. The number of bi+ people who have reached out to me privately and on social media to thank me for putting their experiences into words is a staggering testament to the extent to which bi+ people are stigmatized, excluded, and rendered invisible in a movement we helped create.

Even after marriage equality has been achieved and stigma against gay men and lesbians has declined, bisexual adults and youth have so few aspirational figures with whom they can identify.

Terms like “bi erasure” and “biphobia” aren’t just buzzwords from a whiny fringe of the LGBTQ community; they describe the everyday existence of half of the LGBTQ community, that is, when bi+ people are allowed to assert our existence at all.

Bisexuality is real. Biphobia is real too, and so are its consequences.

Compared to peers who identify as gay or lesbian, bi+ youth and adults report higher levels of mental illness and suicidality, and lower levels of social support; bisexual youth report higher rates of bullying and harassment; and bisexual people face disproportionately high rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

We’re also more likely than gay men and lesbians to experience job discrimination, live in poverty, and be afraid to come out to healthcare providers, which leads to staggering health disparities.

Bi+ people deserve and have more than earned representation, visibility, survival, acceptance, inclusion, the ability to live and love openly in the world and not be marginalized or victimized for it — all the things that the LGBTQ community has been fighting to achieve for so long.

We deserve to be seen, and we have fought for the right to have our contributions to the world and to the LGBTQ community acknowledged.

Beth Sherouse is a writer and activist based in Atlanta.