The Plight of Bisexual Visibility

It’s been a long road to acceptance.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Vitalii Abakumov
Source: Istock by Getty Images Credit:Vitalii Abakumov

September 23 is National Bisexual Day. 

It’s rather ironic that today more of us recognize that someone’s sexual attraction can change/evolve over time and that there is now a wide spectrum of sexual identities that are being recognized. And yet there remain people who are binary and only think on the gay and straight sides of the spectrum, who want to deny that there is something in between—bisexuality.

The most commonly used definition for bisexual is from Robin Ochs, who writes: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.

“For me, the bi in #bisexual refers to the potential for attraction to people with genders similar to and different from my own.”

Bi-erasure

For most straight folks, the moment they learn a so-called “straight” man has had any form of sex with another man or even felt an attraction for one, he is closeted gay, period. For some gays, if a so-called “gay” man has sex with or feels an attraction for a woman, he is lying or trying to keep a foot in heterosexual privilege. In these people’s opinion — who tend to be older, as in over 40 — there is only this binary view of sexual identity, and there’s no such thing as a bisexual. 

The opinion is common enough that I often hear bisexuals complain of experiencing “bi-erasure,” that their bisexual orientation is not valid or nonexistent. 

Media has tried

The final season of an episode in the rebooted Will and Grace, the long-running and popular series on NBC featuring Will as a gay lawyer and his friend, Grace, as a straight interior designer. In this episode, they are challenged by Grace’s younger niece and her new boyfriend.

The boyfriend, who is effeminate and says he likes all the musicals and divas that are popular with gays, announces he is bisexual. Both Will and Grace try their best to convince him that he’s just gay, not bi, and spout a list of all the things bisexual people constantly hear. In short, often people see only what they want or are enculturated to see—"I see what I think you are.”  

Unfortunately, this leads to many misconceptions and slights against bisexuals. For instance, heterosexual women who are in or considering a relationship with a bi man will hear the phrase “bi now, gay later.” In other words, women believe they can’t trust a bisexual man to remain faithful in a heterosexual relationship because he may later become attracted to someone of the same sex.

The truth is, I’ve known many bisexual men who are quite faithful and satisfied in their hetero relationships. But other’s opinions are that they are simply closeted gays afraid to come out as such, or that they can’t make up their mind. In fact, bi men can choose one partner at a time. They can and do commit. 

One can see how deep this runs in our culture when women who have a lesbian encounter are often fetishized, especially by men. I once asked someone over dinner what they call a one-time lesbian encounter, and he said, “I call that college.” And yet if a man has a homosexual encounter even once, he is stigmatized as being gay.

I believe much of this can be traced back to childhood education when children only have permission to explore themselves as heterosexuals. More recently, some people and institutions acknowledge that homosexuality is common and not an “abomination” that must be “prayed away” or eliminated, but many are unwilling to acknowledge that bisexuality is a real thing. 

When a boy who may feel attraction to other boys is only subjected to the culturally approved heterosexual option, he becomes trained to play a heterosexual role whether or not he can truly identify with it. This often leads to painful and confusing years of him climbing out of the rubble that has covered his true sexual identity, as well as numerous psychological and physical problems. 

Fortunately, most practitioners of sex therapy today understand that there is practically an infinite continuum of erotic orientation in humans. Way back in 1978, the Austrian-born American psychiatrist and sex researcher, Fritz Klein, published his studies of bisexuals and their relationships in The Bisexual Option: A Concept of One Hundred Percent Intimacy. It has been called the first real psychological study of bisexuality.

Numerous other books followed, and Fritz became the founder and editor of the Journal of Bisexuality. In this first book, he introduced the Klein Sexuality Grid, which was something of an update on the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s earlier Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, also known as the Kinsey scale. Notably, even back in the ‘50s after some 8,000 scientific interviews, Kinsey understood that not only is sexual identity not simply binary, but that sexuality is fluid and subject to change over time. 

Tribal identity

The strong resistance in both the gay and straight communities to considering bisexuality as something real, I believe is attributable to the tendency of we humans to strongly identify with the values and ideas of the community in which we are an accepted member. I call it tribal ego or tribal identity. If we, for whatever reason, are tempted to step outside of this bubble with our words or actions, we risk being upbraided or even cast out of that community. 

I’ve had bisexual men and women in my office crying because when they revealed they were bisexual they were immediately cut out of the queer culture in which most of their friends lived. Their home culture is the LGBT community but the lesbian and gay communities see them as trying to keep a foot in heterosexual privilege, and so they weren’t allowed to choose their own community. You might be surprised by the number of clients I get that tells this story. It’s rather tragic. 

Let’s get real

It’s past time for us to awaken to the complicated sexual beings that we are, and to recognize that it is not up to any of us to determine what a person’s label should be, but only to that person. No one but that person has the right to call himself or herself whatever label he ultimately chooses. 

There are small signs of hope that if enough people manage to screw up their courage and come out as who they really are, cultural norms be damned, they may be accepted. I’m encouraged that Andrew Gillum, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Florida, announced publicly in an interview with Tamron Hall, co-host of the nationally syndicated “Tamron Hall” program, that he is bisexual. And after a long bout with depression after his loss, he is planning a return to politics hoping that people will again consider him a viable candidate. Notably, there are a few other successful officeholders who call themselves bi, but they are women. It remains to be seen whether American voters can accept a Black bisexual representing them. 

I hold out hope that the stigma about and prejudices against bisexuality will one day disappear, and we can all learn to accept reality.