‘People erase my existence’
Thomas York, a bisexual psychology student at Bath Spa University, draws on research and cultural sources to understand biphobia and bisexual erasure.
26 April 2021
I was in college when I experienced bisexual erasure for the first time. I was part of a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), and many of my friends were members. At the time, I had a boyfriend, and my friends asked me: ‘So Tom, now that you have a boyfriend, does that mean you’re gay now?’. At the time, I didn't realise that what had been said was an act of bisexual erasure – I knew nothing about it. To them, it was just a joke, but to me, it was painful and upsetting, although I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
I ended up calling out my GSA, most of whom were friends. In both moments, the event and the call out, I felt a depth of discomfort that I haven't felt in years, possibly ever. I remember instances of being asked, ‘are you attracted to anyone in this room?’ – the stereotype about bisexuality being that I am automatically attracted to everyone. Recently, in the park with a friend, we overheard a conversation along the lines of ‘if you date girls, you’re a lesbian and nothing else’. I sometimes feel that around every corner, people erase my existence.
I don't often see myself in TV and film. When I do, I am actively objectified, and my sexuality is painted negatively (Glee, Sex and the City, Insatiable, The Real O'Neals). All this comes together to form a mess of internalised biphobia. Am I being gay enough? Am I being straight enough? All I am is 100 per cent bisexual.
Biphobia and more
Biphobia has been prevalent globally for decades and was defined in 1992 by Bennett as prejudice experienced by bisexuals from straight and gay individuals. It’s when others don’t view bisexuality as a valid, unique, and legitimate sexual orientation. These prejudices are born from negative attitudes, beliefs, views, and stereotypes that are hurtful towards bisexual people or perceived bisexuals.
While bisexual erasure has existed for a long time, the actual term was coined by law scholar Yoshino (1999). The Royal College of Psychiatrists has recently defined the term as: ‘ignoring, removing, falsifying evidence of bisexuality from a source and in its extremist form can perpetuate that bisexuality does not exist’ (Watson & Smith, 2020). When bisexual people internalise society's negative social beliefs and apply them to themselves and other bisexual people, that’s internalised biphobia (Hayfield, 2020).
It's also worth defining the ‘four monos’. Monosexuality relates to an attraction to a single-sex or gender, while non-monosexuality is an attraction to more than one sex or gender. Monosexism describes the negativity shown to individuals who do not identify with monosexuality (Hayfield, 2020). Finally, mononormativity refers to cultural or social norms which assume that everyone is or should be monosexual (Hayfield, 2020), and it’s also used around the assumption of monogamy.
I come from a perfectly accepting family, yet I have experienced binegativity and biphobia in a variety of forms in my life. They are just as problematic as they sound.
One of the most common examples of biphobia from both straight and LGBTQ+ individuals is that bisexual people lie to themselves and are gay or straight, and bisexuals are confused in their attraction. Christina Dyar and colleagues (2014) reported that this is especially prominent when bisexual people are in relationships because people assume that both individuals in the relationship are gay or straight – women are particularly likely to be assumed to be gay or on their way to being so. Bisexual women in different-sex relationships can also experience a specific form of ‘acceptance’ from a straight male partner, relying on the man’s eroticisation of female bisexuality. This eroticisation can lead to an increase in depression in bisexual women in different-sex relationships as a direct result of being treated as sexual objects instead of equals.
That paper also showed that bisexual women in different-sex relationships report elevated depression symptoms and higher frequencies of binegative exclusion and rejection by lesbians and gay men than bisexual women in same-sex relationships do. There is a great irony in this – the supposedly accepting LGBTQ+ community perpetuates the exclusionary practice, feeding the belief that because bisexual people like multiple genders, they are not gay or straight enough to belong in either community. It must be particularly upsetting for bi people to seek to find others ‘like them’, only to then not fit in (an issue highlighted by Irvine (2017) and Weiss (2004)).
Another example of biphobia is that bi people may self-define on the basis of attraction to multiple genders, but others may require ongoing ‘proof’ to consider them bisexual. Flanders and colleagues (2017) found that bisexual participants felt pressured to engage in sexual behaviour to provide evidence of their bisexuality, and when doing so, they did not always use safe-sex practices. Their research also indicated that the assumption that bi people in monogamous relationships had ‘chosen their side’ was associated with individuals changing their behaviour to avoid being misidentified—this negatively impacted sexual or mental health.
Think about this for a second. In a monosexual community, would a person feel pressured to engage in sexual activity, risky or otherwise? It sets an impossible double standard that implies bisexual people need to be in a constant cycle of having sex with individuals of more than one sex to prove their bisexuality.
Bisexuality has even been erased from the legal map (Marcus, 2020). In 2020 the United States Supreme Court decided a landmark LGBTQ rights case, Bostock v Clayton County. The decision affirmed that Title VII's sex discrimination protections extended to gay and trans employees, but there is no mention of bisexuality or bisexual people. Bisexuality is again assumed to be a subset of being gay and not its own unique identity. And we see biphobia in the media too. In the hit show Glee, Kurt, the gay character, responds to Blaine, who is questioning his sexuality after a drunk kiss with a girl, by saying: ‘Bisexual is a term gay guys in high school use when they wanna hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change.’ This is just one of many examples – see the GLAAD report ‘Where are we on TV’.
Double and multiple discrimination
Double discrimination is where individuals are discriminated against by both straight and gay groups or individuals for being bisexual (Weiss, 2004). Research by Friedman et al. (2014) concluded that bisexual people face behavioural, psychosocial, and biomedical consequences of marginalisation and isolation from straight and gay individuals/communities. A systemic absence of positive attitudes toward bisexual people may be one of several complex factors that continue to drive higher rates of poor health outcomes among bisexual men and women (Dodge et al., 2011), including poorer mental health (Mereish et al., 2017).
Bisexuals can be seen as confused about their sexualities and as untrustworthy to romantic partners, with Matsick and Rybin (2018) outlining how prejudice comes in part from people discounting the authenticity of bisexuality and wanting to know a bisexual’s ‘true allegiance’. Negative experiences stemming from LGBTQ+ communities can be particularly challenging for a bisexual person to comprehend and process (Weiss, 2004). Such exclusion and alienation can rob an individual of their sense of community acceptance, causing a severe impact on their mental health (Ross et al., 2010).
Furthermore, bisexual people can also experience multiple discrimination based on ‘the intersections of gender, race and ethnicity, disability, class, and other factors’ (Hayfield, 2020). A 2019 study by Doan Van and colleagues found that bisexual people’s discrimination experiences could be ‘additive’ and based on other marginalised parts of a person’s identity. Bisexual people have to navigate their other stigmatised identities, such as a person of colour or a trans individual. This discrimination that comes on multiple identity fronts is detrimental to an individual’s mental health (Ross et al., 2010). There is very little research surrounding multiple discrimination and its effects on bisexual/plurisexual people, and it is vitally important that there is more research into multiple and double discrimination.
Burden and buffering
Much early psychological research missed out on bisexuality or legitimised anti-bisexual discrimination as it classified bisexuals as either gay or straight based on the gender of their current partner. Barker and Langdridge (2008) found that psychological research that feeds into popular culture (e.g. news and media) leans into bisexual erasure through dichotomy and biological explanations. An example of this is a 2005 New York Times article 'Straight, Gay or Lying?', which publicised a psychological study conducted in the same year. Gerulf Rieger and colleagues had found no physiological attraction in bisexual men towards women, only the self-reported bisexual attraction before the experiment began. Attraction matters to a lot of people, but bisexual people exist.
I come back again to the mental health burden: Operario and Mak (2020) found that bisexual individuals have a greater risk of depression and anxiety than gay people and that sexual identity stresses occur on intrapersonal, interpersonal, and community levels. And bisexual women are twice as likely to have an eating disorder if they are out than a straight woman (Koh & Ross, 2008). The same research found that bisexual women who publicly identified as bisexual, compared to a lesbian who was not publicly identified as a lesbian, were 2-2.5 times more likely to have experienced suicidal ideation in the last 12 months.
Surely, finding a community where we feel we belong is key? In a 2017 study of US women, Jaclyn Lambe and colleagues found that perceived binegative discrimination and internalised binegativity were significantly correlated with self-esteem and depression but only internalised binegativity predicted self-esteem and depression. Importantly, participation in a bisexual-specific community at high levels (i.e., daily to 2 to 3 times per week) reduced the impact of internalised binegativity on depression (although not self-esteem).
Simple, then – participate in a bi-community. Unfortunately, research conducted in Australia by Mclean (2008) concluded that while some bisexuals were active within lesbian and gay communities, many were not as they feared rejection or discrimination due to their bisexuality. Additionally, those who did participate in lesbian and gay communities kept their bisexuality hidden most of the time due to the fear of being made unwelcome.
Statistics from the UK bear this out. The 2018 LGBT in Britain Home and Communities report by Stonewall surveyed 5000 participants, 30 per cent of whom were bisexual. 30 per cent of bi men and 8 per cent of bi women felt unable to be open about their sexual orientation with any of their friends, compared to 2 per cent of gay men and 1 per cent of lesbians. A further third of bi people are not open about their sexual orientation to anyone in their family, compared to 8 per cent of lesbians and gay men. The survey also found that 50 per cent of bisexual men and 43 per cent of bisexual women have never attended LGBT specific venues and events in their local communities, compared with 33 per cent of lesbians and 27 per cent of gay men. Shockingly, 27 per cent of bisexual women and 18 per cent of bisexual men had experienced discrimination or poor treatment from the LGBTQ+ community because of their sexual orientation compared to 9 per cent of lesbians and 4 per cent of gay men.
Stonewall followed this with the LGBT in Britain Bi Report in 2020, revealing that 31 per cent of bisexual people (male or female) had experienced a hate incident. 75 per cent did not report it out of fear that the police would not take their case seriously. Furthermore, the report concluded that 76 per cent of gay people are out to all their friends compared to 36 per cent of bisexual people, and 63 per cent of gay/lesbian people are out to all their family members, compared to just 20 per cent of bisexual people.
It’s also worth noting that increasingly, people are identifying with other terms that relate to attraction to more than one gender. They may have experiences which are both similar to and different from bi people. Stonewall's 2018 Celebrating Bi Inclusion in Secondary Schools guide states, 'Young people who are bi or who identify as another term such as pansexual or queer are more likely to deliberately harm themselves (67% and 79% respectively) than lesbian or gay young people (59%)'. There is no beating around the bush here; young non-monosexual people self-harm at higher rates than their gay counterparts because they are bullied for being attracted to more than one gender.
What can be done?
Whether it is coming out, experiencing discrimination, or a hate crime, we’re seeing common factors; the fear of discrimination and biphobic assumptions about what the LGBTQ+ community should look like. This can have a seriously detrimental effect on the psychosocial wellbeing of bisexual people. Yet little has been done in practice to improve protections and support for bisexual individuals.
First, simply consider the possibility that someone might be bisexual rather than either straight or gay.
Second, create and implement evidence-based psychological interventions to support bisexual and plurisexual minorities. These interventions should strategically target identity stress at multiple levels to help bisexuals struggling with anti-bisexual discrimination. The demand for this type of intervention is supported by psychological literature – House et al. (2011) highlight a severe need for suicide prevention and self-harm interventions among LGBT youth.
Furthermore, according to a Stonewall School Report (2017), 76 per cent of LGBT students did not know what bisexuality was. To put that in context, in a school of 1000, if 20 per cent of the students were LGBT, 152 of those LGBT students would not know what bisexuality was. The same report also found that one in three bisexual students (35 per cent) are bullied for being bisexual in school. This indicates a crucial need to create a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum inclusive of bisexual, plurisexual, LGBTQ+ and heterosexual identities. House et al. (2011) suggest that community education on gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination and its negative impact on bisexual people would positively increase the trend towards greater acceptance. Social and psychoeducational awareness programs in schools and colleges, illustrating the damaging effects of anti-bisexual discrimination, could transform a monosexist culture to make it more accepting of non-monosexual people.
Universities can play their part too. While I am yet to reach my final year of study, I do not feel represented in the curriculum so far. We’re talking about one of the most prominent areas of psychology, human relationships, yet much of the classic research ignores or erases my experiences. It’s time for bisexuality to stand as a unique identity.
What would positive change look like to me?
- Freedom to live without fear of anti-bisexual discrimination
- Inclusion in educational curriculums (Uni subject, sex ed etc.)
- Respect for bisexual people irrespective of gender or race
- Equality among all communities (straight, gay, bi and wider LGBTQ)
Ultimately, all I ask is that you treat your bisexual friends, family, colleagues with respect and kindness; whether they're out or not, it could benefit them more than you think.
Editor's note: This article was originally published online on 26 April 2021.
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