First, there was Kate Brown. Now, Kyrsten Sinema. After the midterm elections, LGBT leaders believe that we are finally in the midst of a turning point for bisexual people in public life.
On Monday night, the result was official: centrist Democratic candidate—and bisexual woman—Sinema will become the first openly bisexual senator in United States history, in addition to being the first woman Arizona has ever elected to the Senate. She now joins Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who was just re-elected, as one of the highest-ranking bisexual elected officials in a country where they number few and far between.
In fact, according to a 2017 Victory Institute report, less than 2 percent of all LGBT elected officials in the country are bisexual, even though they are estimated to constitute a slight majority of the LGBT community. That makes Sinema’s win at such a high level a breakthrough moment, according to longtime bisexual advocate Robyn Ochs.
“I’ve been out as bi for 42 years,” she told The Daily Beast. “For the first 40 years, I felt so frustrated with the lack of progress in popular culture, in the public sphere—and in the last two, three years, I feel that we have reached a sort of turning point.”
Ochs told The Daily Beast that she has been refreshing the Arizona secretary of state’s election-results website for days, monitoring the tight Arizona race, waiting to see if an openly bisexual woman like herself would be able to crack this lavender ceiling.
When the Associated Press finally called the election Monday night after days of Sinema’s lead widening, Ochs was in Chicago's O’Hare Airport—not the best place to celebrate loudly.
“I was sitting in a public airport, so it was muted,” she said. But her internal reaction? “It’s a big deal. It’s a big, big deal.”
Bisexual people face particularly intense social stigma—which helps explain why they are much less likely than gay men or lesbians to be out to their peers. According to Pew Research Center data, fewer than a third of bisexual people are out to their inner circles, as compared to nearly three-quarters of gay men and lesbians. Against that backdrop, a bisexual senator is indeed a Big Deal, as evidenced by the joyful responses to her win.
Victory Fund, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works to elect LGBT candidates—and which endorsed Sinema—told The Daily Beast via spokesperson Eliot Imse that Sinema “proved an openly bisexual candidate can win high-profile elected office in a mostly red state and [that] will encourage more bisexual leaders to run for office and make change.”
Tammy Baldwin, currently the only out lesbian or bisexual woman in the Senate, welcomed Sinema on Twitter, writing, “Very happy to say I’m no longer the *only* openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator.”
GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said that the win was a message to bisexual youth “that there is no ceiling they can’t shatter.” Grey’s Anatomy star Sara Ramirez, who came out as bisexual in 2016, was similarly jubilant, as were a wide array of LGBT and bi-specific organizations. All were aware of how tough it is to set this precedent as an out bisexual candidate.
“Getting elected to public office is a popularity contest,” said Ochs, “and it’s hard to win a popularity contest when you identify as bi because there’s so much negative stigma.”
Sinema, formerly a social worker and Green Party activist, has been publicly out as bisexual since at least 2005, winning several such “popularity contests” over the course of her career in the Arizona House of Representatives, and then in the U.S. House.
In a 2013 Washington Post profile, Sinema explained, “For me it just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter if that other person is a man or a woman.” But she also demurred from questions about the precedent she set as the only out bisexual member of Congress saying, for example, “I don’t understand why it’s a big deal.” (The Sinema campaign did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment for this article.)
One especially amusing Sinema comment about her sexual orientation was documented in a 2013 Elle profile: After she defended LGBT people in a speech by saying, “We’re simply people like everyone else who want and deserve respect,” she was asked by the press what she had meant by “we’re.”
“Duh, I’m bisexual,” Sinema reportedly replied.
Regardless of the level of political importance that Sinema herself attaches to her own sexual orientation, she is bound to become a sort of beacon for the many bisexual people who are fearful—justifiably—of being out in their workplace.
According to Pew, the vast majority of bisexual people—nearly nine out of 10–are not out to the majority of the people with whom they’re closest in the office. For Sinema to be out in a workplace that includes some of the most vociferously anti-LGBT voices in the country is quite the feat.
“She’s a possibility model,” Ochs told The Daily Beast. “She is a sign and a symbol that it is possible for bi folks to be out and still succeed professionally at the highest levels.”
Social media reactions to Sinema’s win suggest that she is already having that effect.
As BiNet USA President Lynnette McFadzen told The Daily Beast, “Positive bisexual representation is important for so many reasons. Validation and visibility are crucial to our mental health.”
The bisexual advocacy group is “thrilled” that Sinema will now head to the Senate, with BiNet USA Secretary Beth Sherouse adding that “it helps decrease biphobia when public figures can live openly.”
LGBT groups like Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign advocated strongly for the candidate in one of the most closely-watched and highest-profile races in the country.
She is not only openly LGBT herself but has advocated for LGBT rights during her time in the House of Representatives, co-sponsoring the Equality Act and co-chairing the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. On other issues, she veered more to the right, touting her bipartisan credentials and independent reputation, as The Daily Beast has noted.
According to Human Rights Campaign Arizona state director Justin Unga, Sinema and Oregon's Governor Brown have helped bisexual representation reach a sort of “critical mass,” allowing bisexual Americans to envision a real future in politics.
“We should feel encouraged that people who may have felt invisible or left out saw themselves in the political process this year, and not only felt acknowledged but imagined possibilities for themselves,” he told The Daily Beast.
Although many bisexual and pansexual public figures in entertainment have come out in recent years—among them pop sensation Janelle Monae, Brooklyn 99 actress Stephanie Beatriz, and singer Aaron Carter—comparably high-profile figures in politics have been harder to come by.
As of last year, there were only eight bisexual elected officials in the entire country, according to Victory Institute, with Sinema and Brown as the highest-ranking among them. (Given that there were 448 LGBT elected officials in total, there would have to be well over 200 more bisexual people in public office for them to reach a level reflective of their slight-majority status within the LGBT community writ large—and even then, the LGBT community as a whole is drastically underrepresented.)
Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are already bisexual people in Congress who are not yet out. (“It’s entirely likely,” Ochs told The Daily Beast. “Statistically, it’s likely.”)
According to Pew, most partnered bisexual people are in opposite-gender relationships and, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, a small but still substantial 1.8 percent of the U.S. population identifies as bisexual. It’s quite possible, then, that there are bisexual legislators in D.C. who are not able to come out.
As Imse told The Daily Beast, some bisexual candidates who are well aware of the potential impacts of biphobia on their chances of getting elected, may feel pressured to “hide their sexual orientation to avoid it impacting their campaign.”
For Ochs, the fact that we are seeing bisexual representation advance both in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill is a sign of more substantive change for a community that has long been misunderstood, subjected to stereotyping, and portrayed negatively in the media.
“Something’s happened,” she told The Daily Beast. “Something has happened and there are halfway-decent representations of bi folks in our lives and in our realities that were not present just a few years ago.”
“We’re not even close to where we need to be,” Ochs cautioned. “But I do see progress.”