HEALTH CONSEQUENCES IN A VULNERABLE COMMUNITY
Bisexual-identified people continue to be at extremely high risk for suicide and self-harm.
In 2019, The Australian Journal of General Practice conducted a “Who Am I” study interviewing 2,651 men and women with bisexual attraction, identity, or experience.
The study found a high level of internalized biphobia and induced lack of self-acceptance due to invisibility, erasure, and biphobia.
· 58% reported either high or very high levels of psychological distress
· 67% reported they had been diagnosed with mental illness
· 28% had attempted suicide, 78% had thought about it
· 50% reported self-harm or suicidal thoughts within just the last two years
Why, why why?
Throughout history, those who have identified as bisexual, fluid, on the spectrum, or any non-monosexual identity have suffered from a phenomenon called ‘bisexual erasure.’ Bisexuality is as old as world history, yet still, the existence of fluid sexuality is contested, sometimes requiring bi folks to perform or prove our attractions.
Whether in the media, in academia, literature, religious settings, or even in day-to-day life, the slow burn of bisexual erasure lies right beneath the surface of interpersonal discourse.
The largest self-identified group within the LGBTQ+ community is that of the (B) bisexual individuals, but it doesn’t feel that way and popular optics surely don’t display a majority. In contrast, the proportion of research on LGBTQ+ mental health focusing on the uniqueness of bisexual life experience is small.
But what exactly is bisexual erasure? How does a community of bisexual people exist while bisexual erasure is so prevalent and so many people are suffering in real-time? What impact does erasure have on a bi person’s mental health? How do we end it?
BISEXUAL ERASURE AND ITS CONNECTION WITH BINEGATIVITY & BIPHOBIA
Bisexual erasure refers to a lack of representation. Being without representation tends to mean having no credibility in society. Having no validity in society equates to erasure on an internal level and societal level.
· Mislabeling of a person’s sexuality. An example would be if you say, “I am bisexual,” met with “No, you are not, bisexuals don’t exist,” followed by, “how long have you known you were gay/a lesbian?” This really happens.
· Intentional removal of bisexuality from the media by decision-makers
· Ignoring or dismissing bisexual-voiced concerns about erasure and prejudice experienced
· Coding relationships based on the genders or sexes of the coupling
Bisexual erasure goes hand in hand with ‘biphobia.’ Biphobia is not just throwing a brick at or physically assaulting someone because they have blue and purple highlights in their hair. Biphobia, or binegativity, is also subtle, slow-burn discrimination like aversion or a knee-jerk desire to invalidate or debate a bi person. It is can also be more overt, like justifying poor treatment, bullying publicly, chastising, or breaching someone’s personal space in a sexual manner.
Examples of biphobic attitudes (outside of religious contexts):
- We are ‘greedy’ or ‘promiscuous.’
- We are more likely to cheat and be untrustworthy in relationships.
- “It’s” just a phase before we settle into a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship.
- If you’re not into me, then you’re not bi.
- Alternatively, some homosexuals who once identified as bi have asserted that bisexuality is a stepping-stone to ‘coming out properly.’
Over time, these preconceptions of bisexuality have created an air surrounding a community that doesn’t fit neatly into heterosexual or homosexual discourse and struggles to be seen.
The misconception that a bisexual is either experimenting or closeted, based on whether their relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, is one of the root causes of erasure.
Some straight allies are not aware that many people in the LGBTQ+ community make a damaging assumption that bi-folk have an easier life since we can ‘choose’ to ‘appear’ heterosexual. Or since someone ‘can’t visually tell’ they are attracted to the same sex they do not face discrimination and experience the best of both worlds.
According to Pew Research, “Bisexuals are much less likely than gay men or lesbians to have “come out” to the important people in their life. Only 28% of bisexuals say all or most of the important people in their life know they are bisexual. By comparison, 77% of gay men and 71% of lesbians say the important people in their life know about their sexual orientation.”
Is a bisexual’s reluctance to be visible because we appear to be heterosexual or because we have subconsciously begun to believe the social discourse surrounding us and, instead, erased ourselves?
A lack of representation and slighted efforts toward visibility by LGBTQ+ groups, ignorance, and erasure have left bi-identified people apprehensive and thereby susceptible to mental health issues from a very young age.
According to the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC), “approximately 40 percent of bisexual people have considered or attempted suicide, compared to just over a quarter of gay men and lesbians.” Continuing, “The prevalence of biphobia in LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ spaces alike contribute to these shocking numbers.”
WHERE DOES BISEXUAL ERASURE OCCUR?
The most prevalent bisexual erasure happens in the media. The portrayal of bisexuality in modern media outlets sells and profits from two narratives, namely ‘secretly gay’ and straight.
A man who is intimate with both men and women on screen is portrayed as ultimately being gay, even if that is not factual. Simultaneously women who engage intimately with both men and women are typically depicted as being straight and only ‘experimenting’ with same sex relationships. In some cases, the woman is, in fact, referenced as bisexual.
· During season 23 of the MTV show ‘The Real World,’ the show cast two openly bisexual participants, Emily Schromm and Mike Manning. Despite having relationships with both men and women on air, the show was edited so that Emily and Mike were seen only having encounters with men. Additionally, bloggers covering the show claimed that Mike was gay, despite him identifying as bisexual.
Famous icons even face erasure in historical and contemporary contexts. Freddie Mercury’s obituary labeled him a ‘self-confessed bisexual,’ and he was openly bi during his life. Yet he is only ever spoken of in the context of gayness. The Academy Award-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody depicting Mercury’s life includes a scene of Mercury (played by Rami Malek) telling his fiancée, “I think I’m bisexual,” to which she replied, “No, Freddie. You’re gay.”
· When British Olympic diver Tom Daley came out as bisexual, the media simply reported him as ‘gay,’ despite being ‘supportive.’
Although these actions may seem inconsequential, or you may find yourself laughing from the crystal clear erasure, I believe this demonstrates how both internal and external biphobia are born. They permit people to bully and abuse individuals who identify as bi and create a limiting belief of inferiority in the bisexual’s heart and mind.
HOW DOES BISEXUAL ERASURE & BIPHOBIA AFFECT MENTAL HEALTH?
So, what is the result of large scale and day-to-day erasure?
1. When a person’s identity is removed, hidden, or ignored, it can generate inner turmoil surrounding their bisexuality. Without a visibly empowered community relentlessly patrolling the communication of same-sex attraction and holding authors accountable, internal biphobia can become a breeding ground for self-hatred, and self-doubt.
2. Film, TV, and literature permit and normalize society to invalidate a bi person in real life by removing, hiding, or ignoring people with bisexual or fluid attraction.
The Williams Institute found that approximately a third of bisexual people reported not disclosing their sexual orientation to their healthcare providers, leaving them without full access to medically essential care.
As an example, at the start of the year, I went for an STI check, which I tend to do every six months even though “everything” has been dormant since COVID begun. I’m the hypochrondriac who likes to know my levels and statuses at all times.
As we began the checkup, the provider asked me, “Are you active with men, women, or both?” to which I responded, “both.” She was taken aback by my answer with a jolt. It was almost like she did not expect a response to her question, or an honest response, or had subconsciously made an assumption about what I would say.
I have chosen not to disclose myself to healthcare for this very reason in the past. Or I have opted to focus on whatever “side” I perceived the person to easily absorb simply to avoid a reaction or shift in tone surrounding my care, which as you can imagine, is probably not smart if I need help. Bisexuals have specific physical (and mental, emotional, and spiritual) health concerns.
I’m not the only one who does this! Many bisexual people may feel too uncomfortable to seek aid for issues we are experiencing because of these types of reactions or due to the biphobic energy we may be subjected to from our providers. I am also a person of color. When we begin to mix up the stigmas that exist in healthcare settings against people of color and bisexual, it can feel scary to seek help in any way.
A Gallup research study suggests, “The majority of LGBTQ people in the United States are white, but people of color are more likely than their white peers to identify as LGBTQ.”
In the long term, bisexual men and women represent a high risk of eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and substance abuse, while electing to hide our needs and bottle up our feelings as we have been ‘taught’ to do by society.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
So CLEARLY bisexual erasure is disappointing to discover and witness, but there is a solution for allies who want to understand — allies who have a bi friend or family member — or bi people who do not feel empowered about their orientation.
· Media accountability. We must hold the media accountable for their part in bisexual erasure and patrol biphobic behavior and hyper-sexualization of the community. Society must understand that every identity in “LGBTQ” has its mental needs, and there cannot be a one size fits all approach in healthcare or daily discourse. Media has the widest instant reach. Bi organizations need funding and resources to do this.
· Accurate representation is vital. Invest in and hire bi+ identified writers, actors, and creators. Consult bisexual people before writing their stories, just like you would consult Martin Luther King Jr.’s family before writing a biopic about him. When you see a couple, assume bi first instead of straight or gay. Language is important for unempowered souls. Several celebrities chose to make their bisexuality visible in 2020 and 2021, along with some elected officials including singer Tinashe, act Francois Arnaud, Miss Utah Rachel Slawson, politician Andrew Gillum, and state assembly member Alex Lee.
· Education. Research and learn about sexuality and identities on Google, through books, and conversations.
· Self-awareness. Remind yourself that everyone is on a life journey. Someone else’s reality does not put your reality at risk. There is space for everyone, and straight and homosexuals also benefit from bisexual visibility.
· Offer safe spaces where bisexuals can easily access mental health services that are accepting and empathetic. We need to support people who identify outside of straight and gay by reinventing the stereotypes that surround us, and we need to help on a personal level until the negative image is shattered.
Day to day life solutions
· Affirmation. If a family member or friend discloses their bisexuality to you, affirm them. Take the opportunity to showcase your understanding of visibility issues and your awareness of the prevalence of bisexual erasure and the adverse effects thereof on someone’s mental health. Offer to be a springboard or an ear when they need support, while honestly articulating that you may not be able to relate.
· Awareness & Language. Remember that how someone expresses their gender (playing sports, painting their nails, riding a motorcycle, etc.) is not related to their orientation and how they experience attraction in their heart. Remember that someone’s orientation does not make them more or less able to provide for a family, cheat on a partner, or contract an STD. Identity, gender expression, character and moral compass, lifestyles, partner preferences, and sexual health are separate axis points for all people.
Message to Bisexuals and Fluid Identities
Understand that you are not the only bisexual in the world. I know it feels like it sometimes. Bisexual erasure is a phenomenon. It’s also important that you live life on your terms and disclose on your own terms. Just because you have same-sex attractions does not mean you have innately inherited the conversation about bisexuality in the world.
Something I learned after my dad passed away was that it’s one thing to complain about erasure and discrimination and something else to actively participate in erasing yourself. At this point, I want to make sure I am not contributing to the problem, so I speak up and take on the risk.
If you feel a deep need to be visible as bi, read up, and invest in a bi affirmative therapist to help you and/or your partner explore your thoughts and feelings in a safe, positive environment, and there IS a community out there.
Bisexuality is not a new phenomenon. Today’s generation is better equipped with language and knowledge and is far more accepting than its predecessors. And COVID-19 has taught us that we do not know what’s around the corner. AT. ANY. MOMENT. No-one should have to suffer and hide their true self away for fear of judgment and ridicule. Know better, do better.
Straight allies, bisexuals need you.