Last week’s New York Times Magazine article about “the scientific quest to prove bisexuality exists” has prompted a lot of discussion about bisexuality, bi erasure, and the future of bisexual advocacy. Autostraddle, for example, chided the Times for downplaying the experience of bi women and for focusing primarily on researcher Michael Bailey, who has a history of being dubious about the nature of bisexuality. Though certainly posing questions about how to support the bi community, the article focused simply on some of the research that proves people can have a sexual orientation that is not limited to one gender. Proof, however, is not what bi people need; achieving a cultural authenticity of bisexuality is what’s crucial to the health and well-being of bi people.
Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern tries to parse the issue a bit farther, exploring the importance of identifying openly as bisexual. Stern posits a hypothesis that bisexual advocacy has stalled because there is no culture tied to the identity in the way there is, for example, with gay culture:
If you dwell too long on the interviews in Denizet-Lewis’ story, you might come away from it feeling that bisexuality, as an identity, is little more than a useful fiction. Don’t believe it. The problem lies not in bisexuality itself, but in the modern bisexual movement, which has failed to articulate a coherent platform beyond its initial goals of recognition. If bi activists continue to define bisexuality as nothing more than a more imaginative set of erotic and romantic urges, they’ll further forestall the development of a mature bi culture — giving us no more than the completely sex-oriented definition we started out with. Bi people deserve better than that. It’s time for their movement to stop substantiating its own existence and start trying to give that existence the cultural substance it craves.
But Stern is both negating the importance of bisexual visibility itself and possibly blaming bi people for their own oppression.
Stern’s conclusion stems from the unique invisibility of bisexuality: because the word does not mean polyamory, a person’s relationship does not visibly demonstrate a bisexual identity. A straight person can take a partner of a different sex while a gay or lesbian person can take a person of the same sex, but a bi person’s partner doesn’t carry the same visible representation. In a way, society simplifies gay and straight identities according to which gender a person is attracted to, but bisexuality requires consideration of which genders people can be attracted to. This slightly more complicated understanding is where biphobia, doubt about the validity of bisexuality, originates.
As AutoStraddle points out, there are two basic stereotypes of bisexuality: women who are “lesbians until graduation” and then go straight, and men who are closeted until they come out as totally gay. Both negate bisexuality as an enduring identity. Further complicating the public understanding is women like actress Cynthia Nixon, who admit that their orientation is bisexual, but who choose to live and identify as a lesbian. While Nixon’s choice is perfectly valid, it runs counter to bi activists’ effort to own the fact that making a monogamous commitment to a person of one gender does not invalidate their bisexuality.
As a result of these narrow understandings of bisexuality, coming out as bi is uniquely challenging and not entirely comparable to coming out as gay. In a sense, a bi person often comes out of one closet only to enter another. To avoid doubts about the validity of their identity, they may feel the need to hide one aspect of their orientation depending on the gender of their partner. As a result, it’s arguably harder for bi people to escape the negative health outcomes of the closet. Studies have shown that people who hide their identities do not advance as far in their careers and are more likely to encounter mental health issues, while those who are free to come out are happier, have fewer mental health problems, and improve not only their own career potential but their coworkers’ productivity as well.
It’s not surprising then that bi people have been found to face their own unique health and well-being challenges that cannot be explained by homophobia alone:
- The health of bi women is impacted by their ability to identify in ways with the sexual partners they have.
- Bi men face mental health consequences because they cannot find others like them with whom to commune.
- Both bi men and women experience depression, anxiety, self harm, and suicidal thinking at higher rates than gays and lesbians.
- Bi women are strikingly more vulnerable to rape, partner violence, and stalking than women who are straight or lesbian.
These are just some of the identified consequences when society rejects bi identities. That’s why Stern misses the mark a bit: validating bisexuality is an important priority unto itself.
Combating biphobia means affirming people’s identities regardless of what choices they make in terms of who they have sex with, who they enter relationships with, or how they label themselves at any given time. Society has crossed a threshold in recognizing that people who are gay and lesbian do not choose their attractions, and more importantly, do not have a choice in the gender of the person that they can happily build a life with. Utah might still be arguing that banning same-sex marriage isn’t discrimination because gay men and lesbians are free to marry the opposite sex just like straight people, but it’s not very convincing. Bi people, on the other hand, do have choices; they have the potential to find partners from among a larger pool of people without regard to gender. But just like other people, they don’t stop finding other people attractive just because they’ve committed to one, and that doesn’t make them any more promiscuous, nor does it indicate any doubt about their identity. It simply makes them authentic.
Stern also puts the cart before the horse by implicating bi people for not building up a culture around their identities. Biphobia is the very force keeping bi people invisible and thus may be preventing such a culture from developing, so it’s unfair to blame them for what could be the consequences of their own oppression. More than half of all people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual identify as bi, so bi visibility is not a product of low numbers.
The New York Times’ extended focus on research about the validity of bisexuality is part of the problem. Gay and lesbian people no longer have to prove that their identities are legitimate to receive societal acceptance, and it’s problematic to suggest that the science is still in question for bisexuality. Likewise, bi people shouldn’t have to demonstrate a “coherent platform beyond its initial goals of recognition” if the community’s only goal is recognition and the support that comes with it. To truly eliminate the physical and mental health disparities bi people experience, the solution is simple: take them at their word.