Bisexuality’s Watershed Political Moment
On February 18, former Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) will become the first publicly bisexual governor in the United States. Brown’s swearing in comes on the heels of Democrat John Kitzhaber’s resignation of the governorship Friday following allegations of corruption and influence-peddling lobbied against both him and his fiancée Cylvia Hayes. But what’s bad news for Kitzhaber is great news for the future of LGBT political representation in the United States.
And it’s even better news for bisexual Americans who are sorely lacking public visibility at a crucial moment in LGBT history.
Brown’s unplanned ascension to the governorship is an important step forward for LGBT politicians, especially on a state level. The House of Representatives has had openly LGBT representation since Barney Frank came out in 1987 and it took until 2012 for Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin to become the first publicly LGBT U.S. Senator.
But the only governor to have ever come out as LGBT is former New Jersey Democrat Jim McGreevey, whose coming out speech was coextensive with his announcement that he would resign the governorship in the face of a sexual harassment lawsuit. If anything, it will be challenging for Brown to fare worse than McGreevey in her new spotlight as an LGBT governor.
But Kate Brown is more than just a tick through a political checkbox—the consequences of her new position go far beyond Oregon.
The occasion of the first openly bisexual governor of the United States is a cultural watershed for bisexual people in the United States, who have historically been better represented by celebrities like Bowie than by politicians like Brown.
With same-sex marriage in the United States—which has traditionally been represented as an exclusively gay or lesbian issue—seeming all but inevitable in 2015 and public attention quickly turning to what Time has called “The Transgender Tipping Point,” the “B” in the LGBT is at risk of becoming lost in the shuffle. Brown’s assumption of state leadership in 2015 is a particularly fortuitous opportunity to keep bisexual people in the conversation surrounding LGBT equality, as the country’s focus shifts to the last two letters of that ubiquitous acronym.
Brown’s governorship comes at a surprising moment when bisexual people are much more reluctant to be out than their gay and lesbian counterparts. According to the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, over half of all LGB people in the United States identify as bisexual. Despite this clear majority within the LGBT community, bisexual people are much less visible.
Almost half of bisexual employees are completely in the closet at work, as compared to only a quarter of gay and lesbian employees. And according to a 2013 Pew survey only 28 percent of bisexual people are out to“all or most of the important people in their life” as compared to the majority of gay men and lesbians who are out.
This underrepresentation of bisexual people in personal and professional spheres is even more visible in the world of U.S. politics. In 2012, the Advocate could only count five openly bisexual state officials including Brown out of the then-90 or so LGBT state-level legislators. That’s a lot less than half.
Since that time, former Arizona State Senator Kyrsten Sinema has become the first out bisexual congresswoman but that’s the highest an openly bisexual person has climbed until now, making Brown the highest-ranking openly bisexual public official in U.S. history.
Given the reported prevalence of bisexuality relative to homosexuality, there are almost certainly bisexual politicians who are still in the closet. In the political realm, however, where sexual orientation is not just a matter of discrimination but a factor in one’s very electability, it’s not surprising that very few of them have chosen to come out.
But why are bisexual people, in particular, lagging so far behind in terms of their willingness to come out?
Brown’s own story contains one possible answer: Many bisexual men and women fear social exclusion from both straight people as well as lesbians and gay men.
In an essay for a collection about out elected officials, Brown recalls receiving pushback from all sides when her sexual orientation became public knowledge. Her straight friends perhaps predictably perpetuated the stereotype that bisexual people just can’t pick a side—but more alarming is that her friends in the lesbian and gay community “called [her] half-queer.”
Even her parents told her: “It would be much easier for us if you were a lesbian.”
“Some days I feel like I have a foot in both worlds, yet never really belonging to either,” Brown wrote at the time.
Feeling excluded from both sides of the sexual aisle is a common experience for bisexual Americans. In fact, according to the above-referenced 2013 Pew Survey, LGBT Americans perceive bisexuality to be the least accepted sexual orientation, although bisexual women tend to fare far better than bisexual men.
Bisexuality is certainly the least understood sexual orientation in a culture accustomed to only seeing sexuality through a binary lens, and it remains surrounded by particularly pernicious cultural myths—ones perpetuated by both gay and straight people.
These myths have long affected Brown’s career.
When Brown was first outed, for example, Bill Markham, an older colleague in the Oregon House reportedly joked: “Guess that means I still have a chance?” While it would be easy to dismiss Markham’s alleged comment as a familiar form of sexual harassment, it is also noticeably tinged by the stereotype that bisexual people are more promiscuous and hence more approachable.
The Oregonian also reports that, in 2008, a Portland LGBT magazine advised Brown to “butch it up” if she wanted to be taken seriously as an LGBT public official. For the many bisexual women who feel invisible in LGBT circles because they present “femme” and are therefore read as straight, this injunction to “butch it up” is a familiar one, often experienced as a subtle cultural pressure even when it remains unspoken.
And today, the fact that Brown is currently married to a man, Dan Little, is reportedly being raised to question her allegiance to the LGBT community. Bisexual people with opposite-sex partners—and perhaps particularly bisexual women with male partners like Brown—often feel excluded from lesbian and gay communities, either because they are dismissed as “straight” or because they are perceived to have too much privilege to be meaningfully invested in the cause.
Brown may have a long track record of supporting pro-LGBT legislation in Oregon, but she will likely have to work twice as hard as a lesbian politician to be read as an advocate, simply because her spouse is a man.
But by becoming the first bisexual governor, Brown now has more power than ever to be influential in helping to end these same forms of prejudice. In addition to reporting that bisexuality seems to be the least accepted orientation, LGBT Americans also told Pew that “well-known public figures who are open about being LGBT” is the second most helpful factor in “making society more accepting of people who are LGBT.” That’s second only behind people getting to know LGBT people on a personal level.
So far, the U.S. has seen its fair share of bisexual celebrities—Gore Vidal, Pete Townshend, Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox, and Margaret Cho have all borne the label—but bisexual public figures in other spheres are fewer and further between. The only LGBT politicians that Pew respondents could point to as indicators of progress were either gay or lesbian.
There’s a dire need for more bisexual public figures and Brown, however unwittingly and literally overnight, has become the right woman for the job.
Kate Brown has just become the most well-known bisexual politician in the United States. What she will do with this newfound status remains to be seen but her governorship could not have come at a better moment for the many bisexual Americans who look at their elected officials and see no one like them.