Brian Dodge Is on a Mission to Make America Understand Bisexuality
‘I’ve always looked at bisexuality as a blessing—that you’re not limited in terms of attraction, identity, that things can be fluid,’ says academic Brian Dodge. His work shows it.
Brian Dodge was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the mid-’90s when he asked why the word “bisexual” was missing from the school’s “Lesbian Gay Male Programs Office.”
“We can only have so many letters in an acronym,” one official told him, by way of explanation.
Dr. Dodge, now a public health professor at Indiana University, has gone on to become the go-to name on research into bisexual men.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a well-researched article on the subject that doesn’t include his expertise. Last fall, he and Dr. Wendy Bostwick from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing received a groundbreaking National Institute of Health grant to study the health disparities faced by that particularly vulnerable segment of the LGBT community.
But Dodge tells The Daily Beast that he still acutely remembers the biphobia he faced as a young adult—mostly, it seems, because it hasn’t faded nearly enough.
Much of the motivation behind Dodge’s current work can be traced back to his time at the University of Michigan as a bisexual man. He tells The Daily Beast that he was struck by the disparity between all the “bisexual activity” that he was seeing on campus, coupled with “really negative attitudes” toward bisexuality itself.
What happened during “spin the bottle” games, he recalls, didn’t exactly match up with how people talked about bisexuality as a sexual orientation—and that disjuncture prompted him to write a senior thesis on the topic of societal attitudes toward bisexual people.
But finding a faculty adviser for the project proved challenging. One potential candidate, Dodge says, told him, “I understand homosexuality—the gay, lesbian thing, but this bisexuality is jut too out there, it’s just too much.”
Within the budding LGBT population on campus, too, Dodge recalls that he was “really blown away by the reaction of the GL vs. BT,” with the former too often repeating myths like, “You’re not who you say you are, you don’t exist, you’re confused, et cetera.”
“I don’t think you can like more than one,” friends had said. “You have to be one way or the other.”
Dodge did the thesis—and then a master’s program, and then a Ph.D. in public health, and then a postdoc at Columbia, before ending up at Indiana University—but all these years later, he still encounters some of those same stereotypes.
“Thankfully, I think we’ve come a little bit past that but I still find it sometimes,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Bi and trans and queer people just aren’t ‘comprehensible,’ and they’re ‘too much.’”
Dodge’s own research proves that we have made dishearteningly slow progress when it comes to the social acceptance of bisexuality.
In a nationally representative PLOS One study published in 2016, Dodge and his co-authors found that attitudes toward bisexual people have only shifted from “very negative to neutral,” as he noted in a press release, over the last decade—and that attitudes toward bisexual men were particularly poor.
Fortunately, Dodge himself had strong familial support from an early age in the form an ex-Marine father who, as he told Freedom for All Americans, is “the most open, tolerant, and loving person [he has] ever met.”
“I really don’t know what to do about this,” Dodge remembers telling his parents, when he finally “broke down” and told them that he was bisexual.
His dad’s memorably compassionate response was that “this is just part of life.”
“And I mean,” Dodge adds, “the guy’s a former Marine and a criminal defense lawyer—kind of a hardass.”
Dodge’s research has contributed to a growing field of data showing that bisexual people, especially bisexual men, face strong forms of stigma that have an undeniable impact on their mental health—even compared to gay men and lesbians.
As he and his colleagues catalogued in the 2016 PLOS One study, attitudes toward homosexuality have improved dramatically compared to the almost glacial progress for bisexual people.
“We see that reflected in the dramatically disparate rates of substance use, suicidality—all these health concerns—eating disorders, self-harm,” he tells The Daily Beast. “Whenever you split bisexual folks apart from other people, they tend to have higher rates on these issues—and I think part of that is because it is pretty tough to cope when you have everyone in the world telling you that you don’t exist.”
Perhaps especially troubling is the fact that some of the stigma that bisexual people face comes from within the LGBT community.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Bisexuality, previously reported by The Daily Beast, found that a sample of 745 bisexual people had experienced comparable levels of discrimination from both straight and gay people, even though discrimination from heterosexuals still had a statistically significant edge.
“Essentially, it’s like saying that two people are yelling at you, but one voice is a decibel higher,” is how Tangela Roberts, lead author on that study, explained the results to The Daily Beast in 2015.
That more or less lines up with Dodge’s own experiences. As a young man, his peer support networks were largely composed of bisexual women—because, unfortunately, not many bisexual men could afford to be visible. Straight people who considered him a friend, Dodge recalls, “mostly didn’t have a problem.”
“I don’t want this to come across as an indictment,” he says, “but really the vast majority of issues that I faced have been from gay and lesbian people.”
This phenomenon is particularly disheartening because, according to a Williams Institute estimate, bisexual people actually comprise a slight majority of the broader LGBT population—although, tellingly, they are much less likely to be out of the closet than their gay and lesbian peers.
In many ways, Dodge’s career has been about moving the needle forward for this undervalued community through both activism and science.
In 2015, he attended the inaugural White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing, where he helped make public health policy recommendations. He sees no conflict between being an openly bisexual advocate and a researcher who studies bisexuality.
“The fact that you can’t be both part of a community and an advocate for your community but also an objective scientist—that, to me, is just like nails on a chalkboard,” he tells The Daily Beast.
Dodge says that he sees the biphobia in our society and “hopefully within [his] career want[s] to do something to change that.” But he almost certainly already has, especially judging from what he calls the “beautifully diverse” generation of younger people who are now coming out as bisexual and queer in larger numbers.
The “Lesbian Gay Male Programs Office” is now called The Spectrum Center—just one sign of a younger generation’s progress on acknowledging and embracing sexual fluidity.
One of Dodge’s proudest recent accomplishments wasn’t a study or a grant but a message he received: “I had a high school student send me a letter. An actual letter. In the mail.”
That student wanted to know the same thing Dodge himself wondered as a young man at University of Michigan: Can I really study bisexuality? Will I find support?
“I was able to answer yes,” Dodge recalls, before quickly adding with a laugh that he knows the story sounds “hokey.” (“I don’t want to sound like Miss Universe, world peace or whatever,” he jokes.)
Ultimately, for all the challenges Dodge has faced from his undergraduate years to today, he wouldn’t have chosen any other life.
“I’ve always looked at bisexuality as a blessing—that you’re really not limited in terms of attraction, identity, that things can be fluid,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m Mother Teresa or anything but, really, thank God I’m bisexual. I wouldn’t want to change it.”