Are Bisexuals Shut Out of the LGBT Club?
No, bisexuals don’t have twice as much sex as everyone else. But there is mounting evidence to suggest that they experience double the types of discrimination as their gay and lesbian peers.
Two studies published in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of Bisexuality confirm what bi people have been saying for some time: The discrimination they face within the LGBT community is as real as the discrimination they face outside of it. As the U.S. enters its first full year of marriage equality and the battle for transgender rights continues, these studies point to the persistent but often ignored problem of biphobia among gay men and lesbians.
In one study, Counseling Psychology Ph.D. student Tangela Roberts and two professors at the University of Massachusetts surveyed 745 bisexual people about their experiences of discrimination in various social contexts. They found that the biphobia their respondents experienced from gay men and lesbians was not equal to, but still disturbingly comparable to, what they experienced from straight people.
“Although the level of discrimination that bisexuals experienced from heterosexuals, when compared to discrimination from the lesbian and gay community, was statistically significantly higher, the effect size reveals that the degree of difference was small,” their study concluded.
“Essentially it’s like saying that two people are yelling at you, but one voice is a decibel higher,” Roberts explained to The Daily Beast. “Yes, statistically one voice is more significant, but the difference between the two voices is small.”
The survey for the study asked bisexual people to complete an Anti-Bisexual Experiences Scale (ABES), which asked, on a scale from 1 to 6, how frequently certain events have happened to them, such as being told that they were “confused” about their orientation, being “excluded from social networks,” or having it be assumed that they are more likely to cheat because they are bisexual.
As the study sadly indicated, these attitudes are common not just among straight people, but among gay men and lesbians as well. The average ABES score reported for experiences with straight people was 2.38. The average for experiences among gay men and lesbians was only slightly lower at 2.29.
Roberts believes that her research sheds light on a troubling but often ignored fault line within the LGBT population.
“This is the thing that isn’t talked about,” she said. “It’s like airing out the dirty laundry of the supposed ‘LGBT community.’ It’s saying, ‘Look, we haven’t been acting like this community that we’re supposed to be and we need to do something about that.’”
At the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, postdoctoral research fellow Corey Flanders and her co-authors came to a similar conclusion. Several of the 35 young bisexual women they interviewed about mental health for their study in the Journal of Bisexuality described feeling excluded within LGBT spaces.
“[A] couple of years ago I went to Pride and I took my boyfriend with me, because he just wanted to be supportive and come with me to this thing that’s really important to me,” one interviewee said. “[We] did a march and at the end of it I was feeling really happy and excited, and we kissed, and people started booing us.”
“[T]hat was really hurtful for me,” she added, “because it was like being rejected by my own community based on these wrong assumptions they were making about me.”
Flanders told The Daily Beast that biphobia among gay men and lesbians “certainly comes up frequently among participants in discussions of bisexual mental health.”
“With gay and lesbian individuals, [social support] can be accessed in queer community spaces if not in predominantly heterosexual spaces,” she said. “With bisexual individuals, this is not always the case.”
Left with few places to find unqualified support, it may not be surprising that bisexual people have some of the worst mental health outcomes of any sexual orientation.
A large 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that bisexual men and women had a higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders as compared to gay men, lesbians, and heterosexuals. One example: Nearly 60 percent of bisexual women had a lifetime history of mood disorder, compared to about 45 percent of lesbians and a little over 30 percent of heterosexual women.
“Pervasive stereotypes and negative attitudes about bisexuality are present not only among the ‘dominant’ heterosexual population but among lesbian and gay populations as well, resulting in a ‘double stigma’ for bisexuals,” the authors wrote, in an attempt to account for the alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety among bisexuals.
Roberts, Flanders, and other LGBT scholars have begun to label this “double stigma” as “monosexism,” a specific form of prejudice against those who are attracted to more than one gender. As used in their research, the term functions as a catch-all for both the heterosexual stigmatization of bisexuality and the questioning of bi identity among members of other sexual minorities.
“It’s essentially thinking that the only ‘true’ sexual orientations are heterosexual, lesbian, and/or gay,” Roberts told The Daily Beast. “All other sexual orientations are deemed to be illegitimate, not real, or just a product of confusion.”
Roberts, who openly identifies as bisexual herself, says that she has always known from her own experiences that monosexism was a problem among gay men and lesbians but that it was “heartbreaking” to see her personal knowledge verified empirically.
“While doing this study, I had one of those moments where I was sitting there interpreting the data and, once I realized what the numbers were telling me, I felt this immense sadness for the participants, for myself, and for this concept of a ‘LGBT community’ that we’ve told ourselves is functioning and supportive,” she said.
The one silver lining of Roberts’s study was that bisexual people who felt accepted by friends and family reported lower ABES scores than those who lacked a support network.
But this finding may be cold comfort to a sexual minority that remains largely closeted long after many gay men and lesbians in the U.S. have already come out. According to estimates from the Williams Institute at UCLA, bisexual people are more numerous than gay men and lesbians combined but, according to a 2013 Pew Survey, they are the most likely to be in the closet, with just 28 percent reporting that “all or most of the important people in their life” know about their orientation.
That same Pew Survey found that bisexual people were the sexual minority least likely to believe that LGBT people are socially accepted, with 28 percent saying that there was “only a little” or no acceptance of LGBT people.
Those numbers may not budge for bisexuals until coming out is a less risky course of action. Roberts’ study found that, despite the subset of people who had supportive friends and family, “participants who were out to family and friends reported greater antibisexual discrimination.”
“[T]he fact that outness to family and friends was negatively related to antibisexual discrimination is concerning, suggesting that bisexual people who are out may be vulnerable to discrimination in many contexts,” the study noted.
Several of Flanders’ interviewees also relayed that coming out was, as the researchers summarized, “an exhausting process” due to the widespread misunderstandings of bisexuality they encountered from their friends.
One participant said that when she came out to a straight male love interest, he replied, “Oh, you’re a lesbian.” After she tried to explain, he said, “Uh, I just think of you as a lesbian in my head, it’s easier for me.”
Crucially, it’s not just straight people who can make coming out an ordeal for bisexual people. Last February, when Kate Brown became the first openly bisexual governor, an old essay of hers resurfaced in which she recalled being called “half-queer” by her gay friends after revealing her orientation.
Like Brown, many bisexual people are disheartened to find their identities interrogated by people who are ostensibly part of the same community. There is a B, after all, in LGBT.
As bi activist Anna Aagenes recalled in a blog post, “Finding the LGBT community was like joining a new club that I (technically) belonged to, but when I arrived to pick up my towel and complimentary gym pass, my membership was called into question.”
And if it wasn’t clear before the latest issue of the Journal of Bisexuality, it’s becoming harder to deny now: Biphobia within the LGBT community is not a minor internal conflict but a significant form of prejudice that is almost certainly having a negative effect on bisexual people’s mental health.
“This [form of] exclusion may account for some of the elevated negative mental health outcomes among bisexual people because they are not only experiencing discrimination from heterosexual people, but from gay and lesbian people as well,” Flanders told The Daily Beast.
What can be done to counteract these negative effects? Roberts thinks it’s time to finally air the dirty laundry of monosexism and confront the stigma that prevents bisexual people from feeling like the B in LGBT is more than just a gesture.
“Realistically there are changes that need to happen, biases that we need to talk about, and long-held discriminatory beliefs that need to be addressed,” she said. “This must happen before we can really get to a point where we can say that these communities are for all non-heterosexual individuals, not just the lesbian and gay ones.”