Bisexual Privilege and Visibility

February 18, 2015 in inQueery

Bisexual_Pride_-_DC_Capital_Pride_-_2014-06-07Some heterosexuals and some homosexuals deny that bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation. In 2013 the Huffington Post covered a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh which revealed that heterosexual people generally have negative opinions of bisexuality. Fifteen percent of the heterosexual respondents even denied that bisexuality was a real identity. Unfortunately, similar attitudes are found within the gay and lesbian community. Many of us have heard gay and lesbian people make comments suggesting that bisexual people are just confused, greedy, or lying to themselves and others. Board members of the Los Angeles-based American Institute of Bisexuality (A.I.B.) stated in a recent New York Times article that the worst discrimination against bisexual people actually comes from the homosexual community.

While I am aware that these ideas against bisexuality exist, I would like to think that they are held by a minority and discounted now as archaic. I would also like to think that most people would agree that we are all experts of our own identities and that claiming to understand other people’s identities better than them is senseless. I disagree with these statements that discount bisexual people’s identities because of my own experience as a bisexual person and because of empirical evidence that proves that bisexuality is actually prevalent in our community.

Lisa Diamond presented her research in 2013 at Cornell University and revealed that bisexuality is the largest group in the LGB community. In her presentation, Diamond discussed twelve different studies conducted in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand from 1992 to 2010. Diamond found the same pattern of sexual fluidity in all of these studies: there are more people who claim to be attracted to both the same sex and the opposite sex than there are people who claim to be attracted to only the same sex. Diamond also found that many people who identify as lesbian or gay have fantasies and sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex.

Just in case there are still people out there who claim that bisexuality is not a legitimate identity, Diamond has provided ample evidence that shows bisexuality is a reality for most people in the LGB community. This is not to say that empirical evidence is needed to dispel such myths about bisexual identity; one person’s identity as bisexual should be enough evidence that it is real.

How is it that bisexuals are the largest group in the LGB community, yet some lesbian and gay people have expressed disregard or disrespect for bisexual identities?

There are differences between the experiences of people who are only attracted to the same sex versus the experiences of people who are attracted to both the same sex and the opposite sex. These differences provide the bisexual community with some privileges that the lesbian and gay communities do not have. Feelings of unshared oppression may be why some gay and lesbian people unrightfully discount bisexual identities.

There is a simple privilege that comes along with identifying as bisexual, and that is the possibility of being in a heterosexual relationship and enjoying the benefits that comes along with it. Sylla, one of the board members of A.I.B., said, “Most bisexuals are in convenient opposite-sex relationships and aren’t open about their sexual orientation.” Whether or not that is true, as a bisexual person I think it is important for bisexual people in heterosexual relationships to acknowledge that their appearance of heterosexuality provides them with privileges, like being able to easily visit their spouse in the hospital.

Bisexual people may also have more options for personal identification. The New York Times reported that a Pew Research Survey in 2013 found that “bisexuals are less likely than gays and lesbians ‘to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.’” This is also a privilege for bisexual people, as they may not have to think as much as gay and lesbian people do about their sexual identities and what it means for their humanity.

However, some bisexual people in heterosexual relationships may not be open about their sexual orientations out of fear that they will experience prejudice. Similarly, some bisexual people may not view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity because of internalized stigma from the prejudice they have already experienced.

Researchers Brian Dodge and Theo Sandfort, in Becoming Visible: Counseling Bisexuals Across the Lifespan, discussed their findings that bisexual people report higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and substance-use compared to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. They hypothesize that bisexuals have higher rates of mental health issues because of the prejudice they experience from both the heterosexual community and the homosexual community. Dodge and Sandfort made the point that research is limited when exploring the differences in bisexual mental health and homosexual mental health, and that more research is needed to verify their hypothesis.

There seems to be contradictory information regarding bisexual identity. According to some research, bisexual people seem to be a large group of people who get to experience the privilege of heterosexual relationships and who do not have to think much about their sexual orientation. According to other research, bisexual people seem to be a large group of people who experience prejudice and widespread mental health issues because of it. It seems to me that like sexuality itself, bisexual experience is a spectrum: there are people who experience more privilege, people in the middle, and people who experience more oppression. Ultimately, bisexuality is a real identity that should be investigated further, especially considering that many bisexual people experience mental health issues and deserve to be allocated the same resources as people of other marginalized groups.

Revae Hitt is a Guest contributor at InQueery.