In our high school and college years, it’s typical for us to consider what mark we want to make on the world. Many of us in the LGBTQ community have wondered whether political life was for us. In the mid-aughts, when I realized I identified as bi, I thought a political career was out of the realm of possibility for me. I didn’t think it was impossible for a gay candidate to win an election, but extremely difficult. And I thought that there were particular challenges for bisexual people seeking political office.
The unique stereotypes bisexual people have been trying to shake for years, from both within the LGBTQ community and from straight people we know, seemed like too much of a burden to overcome. Bi women are objectified in media and portrayed as manipulative and treacherous. Straight people see us as promiscuous and confused. Many monosexual people in the queer community ignore bisexual people, when they’re not mocking us for believing our sexuality exists at all.
There are 22 LGBTQ candidates running for House seats, according to NPR, some of whom are running in states that could go from red to blue. Among some of the more well known Democratic LGBTQ candidates running for Congress are Angie Craig, running for Minnesota’s 2nd district, Sharice Davids, running for Kansas’ third district, Lauren Baer running for Florida’s 18th district, and Gina Ortiz Jones, running for Texas’ 23rd district, who are all lesbians. The only two bi candidates with significant media coverage are Katie Hill, running for California’s 25th district, and Kyrsten Sinema, a U.S. representative for Arizona’s 9th district who is running to replace Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
Bi people have only made inroads into political representation very recently. When Kate Brown (D) became governor of Oregon in 2015, she made history as the first openly bi governor. When I first learned of her victory, I was amazed. I couldn’t imagine someone who experienced the same stigmas as me would be elected governor. Sinema, the first bisexual member of Congress, also made history just a few years ago, in 2013. If she wins a seat in the Senate, she would be the first openly bi person elected to the U.S. Senate.
Still, bi people are right to be concerned about our lack of representation across state and national political offices. More people are identifying as bisexual, according to the CDC and there are more celebrities coming out as bi. Studies on LGBTQ folks tell us that between 40 to 50 percent of the community is bisexual. But political representation is still progressing at a slow pace.
Brown and Sinema’s experiences telling their family and the general public about their sexuality should feel familiar to bi people. Sinema’s first known public comment about her sexuality, when she was an Arizona state lawmaker, came after she responded to a Republican’s comment about the LGBTQ community. When she used the word “we” to refer to LGBTQ people, reporters asked why. She said, “Duh, I’m bisexual.”
When Brown came out to her parents, they told her “it would be much easier for us if you were a lesbian.”
A lot of bi people can relate to puzzled reactions from people who assumed we were straight or expected a formal announcement of our sexuality. Bi people know that for LGB people in general, but perhaps bi people in particular because we have relationships with people of other genders, the coming out process is constant. Bi people can probably relate to a lack of acceptance from straight people who, despite whatever assumptions they hold about gay people, are more able to relate to both straight and gay monosexuals better than they do to bi people.
And a lot of bi people can surely understand Brown’s anxiety about coming out and how her ability to come out on her own terms was taken from her. Brown spoke about fears of discrimination and how she hid her sexuality during her early law career when interviewed for Breaking Through, a documentary about LGBTQ politicians and in an essay, she wrote, “Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either.”
It matters for bisexual people to see themselves represented in political life, not only because it tells other bi people that they can participate, but because it also forces the straight and gay community to understand their own biases and learn more about bi people. For bi women married to men, such as Katie Hill, there is an attitude among both straight and gay people that she doesn’t have to talk about her sexuality — as if this particular identity were optional or as if her marriage to a man cancels out her attraction to people of other genders. In a profile about Hill for The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote, “She is married to a man, Kenny Heslep, but identifies as bisexual” as if her marriage to a man were a contradiction.
In an interview with Hill at her campaign headquarters, I mentioned that sentence.
“But she said, but …” Hill said. “Yeah that’s common. I didn’t take offense to it but it’s an indicator of people are trying to figure out what this means. I also have realized about being open on the trail that I have played this role of explaining what being bi is to a lot of older liberal people who are LGBT friendly but just don’t really get it. That has been a unique job description throughout this campaign.”
“I have played this role of explaining what being bi is to a lot of older liberal people who are LGBT friendly but just don’t really get it.”
In a previous interview with ThinkProgress, Hill, who has identified as bi since she was a teenager, said that a lot of people told her to be quiet about being bisexual. Sinema also referred to the suggestion she couldn’t win because of her sexuality. In 2012, Sinema said she was told by a union that one of her primary opponents, Andrei Cherny, said she couldn’t win the general election because she is bisexual. Cherny’s campaign manager at the time, Seth Scott, said these were “egregious lies.”
Hill told ThinkProgress in July that she was surprised by how many people were skeptical of whether she was bisexual and thought she would lie about identity to get the LGBTQ community to support her.
“Anyone who knows anything about coming out knows that this is something you would never do for the support and a small check from a random organization,” Hill told ThinkProgress at the time.
In an interview at her campaign headquarters, Hill said part of being openly bi and running for Congress means that her sexuality is “overplayed” in the media and that it’s not “the main thing.” Being identified mainly through one’s sexuality in article after article is probably frustrating for Hill. But bisexual representation isn’t only important for convincing young bi people that they can viably run for political office. It’s also important to ensuring that the unique challenges bi people face don’t go unnoticed.
Bi people encounter different kinds of barriers when it comes to receiving health care, such as assumptions about and judgments of their sex lives — when doctors ask about their sexuality at all. Sometimes bi people don’t disclose their sexuality over fears of bias from health care professionals. Bi women have been told by health care professionals they must have a higher number of partners. Bi men have been harangued for supposedly hiding their sexual experiences with men from women they’re involved with and exposing them to STIs in ways straight men aren’t.
Better mental health care systems and LGBTQ education campaigns are also extremely important for bi people. Research has also shown that bi adolescents have a much higher rate of substance use compared to straight people and bi women have been found to have greater incidences of suicidal ideation and self harm. Bisexual young people have also said they are also less likely to have social supports in place when they felt sad compared to gay and lesbian young people. Bi people are also more likely to understand why bi men are afraid to come out to people close to them and the need for public education campaigns to dispel specific myths about bi men.
The U.S. has done little to truly examine how sexual violence and intimate partner violence affects bi people and take steps to reduce these incidents. There are higher rates of rape, physical violence, or stalking for bi men compared to straight men and a 2012 study found that bisexual women and gay men had higher rates of intimate partner violence. A 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities found that rates of unwanted sexual contact were higher for queer students. Nineteen percent of gay women and 32 percent of bi women experienced unwanted sexual contact compared to 18 percent of straight women. Bi people know well the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces across the board, in housing, homeless shelters, and in doctor’s offices.
Hill supports the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation, sex, and gender identity in nondiscrimination protections for housing, employment, and public accommodations.
“It’s beyond just marriage, right?”
“We need to look through the lens of disparities whether it’s with health or housing or other issues for the LGBTQ community. It’s beyond just marriage, right?” Hill said. “We need to get into that mindset in terms of where are these disparities and how do we address them. One of the statistics that bothers me because I don’t have an explanation for it is why the instance of sexual assault dramatically is higher for bisexual people and I don’t think we have an answer for that.”