By Robyn Ochs
This chapter appears in Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World. ed. Robyn Ochs and Sarah E. Rowley. (Bisexual Resource Center, 2005), pp. 201-205.
Bisexuals make people uncomfortable. Many people wish that we would just go away, or at least keep quiet about it, because they perceive our very existence as a threat to the social order. A declaration of bisexual identity often results in discrimination, hostility, and invalidation. Gay- and lesbian-identified individuals frequently view us as either confused or interlopers possessing a degree of privilege not available to them, and many heterosexuals see us as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families. Why all the fuss?
To understand the dynamics of biphobia, it helps to understand the dynamics of oppression in general, in order to separate out what is actually about bisexuality itself, and how much of it is just about silly humans, and how we tend to behave as social creatures.
First off, Western society likes to construct things in binaries: Male/Female, Good/Evil, and of course, Straight/Gay. In each of these binaries, one is given high status, the other lower.
Prejudiced behavior, or discrimination, is widespread. People in many categories and in many cultures have long been denied access to opportunities in employment, housing, and civil liberties. We are also denied the luxury of being able to see people who look and live like ourselves represented fairly on television, in the movies, in newspapers and in magazines.
Another example of discrimination is stereotyping: having a preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person. For example, bisexuals have been stereotyped as indecisive and promiscuous. Sexual orientation is what Gordon Allport called “a label of primary potency,” one that is seen as so significant that “it magnifies one attribute out of all proportion to its true significance, and masks other important attributes of the individual” (p. 179). Attention is focused on this one aspect of ourselves, and all of our other qualities and characteristics get thrown into shadow. Bisexuality, once known, thus becomes foregrounded.
It is important to remember that despite this, each person has numerous simultaneous identities. I, for example, identify as bisexual, able-bodied, athletic, a dancer, left-handed, an activist, an academic, a student, a public speaker, a daughter, aunt, and sister, and as someone in a same-sex marriage. Many of us are members of more than one identity group within a given category: I, for example, identify as mixed-class, and my religious/ethnic heritage is mixed. I am Jewish but not religious, and one of my three parents was Christian. I have lived in Boston for 20 years but identify strongly as a New Yorker. Some of our identifications may be as members of the majority or in-group; others may be as members of the minority, or out-group. Few of us are in all respects privileged or in all respects oppressed.
Another factor directly affecting bisexuals’ experiences of oppression is the invisibility of our particular minority population. We have to deal with the constant visibility of those of our identity categories that are visually identifiable (by the fact of sitting in a wheelchair, or because of the hue of our skin). These characteristics do not give us the option of “passing” as a member of the dominant group in order to avoid discrimination. We experience identities that are not readily apparent, such as sexual orientation or religion, differently. While not constantly identifiable, which may in certain contexts protect us from discrimination, we suffer the disadvantage of not being able to identify others like ourselves, resulting in feelings of isolation and an underestimation of our large numbers by both members of our own group and members of the dominant group. In addition, the “privilege” of passing also carries as its counterweight the onus of needing to repeatedly announce ourselves in order to avoid being misidentified, as well as feelings of guilt or discomfort when we are silent. We carry the weight of constantly having to make the decision of how and when to come out and at what cost.
Biphobia cannot be understood in isolation. It shares many characteristics with other forms of oppression, especially homophobia. Audre Lorde (1984) defines homophobia as the belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving, and thereby the right to dominance and the fear of feelings of love for a member of one’s own sex, and the hatred of those feelings in others. The Campaign to End Homophobia, an organization dedicated to raising awareness among heterosexuals, divides homophobia into four distinct but interrelated types: personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural. Personal homophobia is an individual’s own fears or feelings of discomfort toward homosexual people or homosexuality. Interpersonal homophobia is that same fear manifest in hurtful behaviors, such as name-calling, negative jokes, or the physical violence directed at bisexuals, gay men, and lesbians, known as “gay bashing.” Institutional homophobia consists of a broad range of discriminatory practices toward lesbian, gay, or bisexual people, such as prohibiting same-sex couples from obtaining social benefits under their partners’ policies or denial of legal protection against discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations. They define cultural homophobia as cultural standards and norms that pervade society, such as the assumption that all people are heterosexual or silence around issues of homosexuality (Thompson & Zoloth, 1990).
There is no doubt that homophobia and heterosexism exist. One need only look at the prevalence of bomb threats, murder, physical assaults, arson, vandalism, telephone harassment, and police abuse against GLBT people.
How does homophobia affect bisexuals, gays, and lesbians? Gordon Allport (1954) laid out multiple ways in which individuals respond negatively to stigmatization, including two of importance to the discussion of biphobia: aggression and blame directed at one’s own group, and prejudice and discrimination directed against other minorities. Theoretically, this may assist us in understanding two phenomena frequently observed in sexual minority populations: (a) internalized homophobia and (b) the hostility directed at bisexuals and transgendered persons by some gay men and lesbians. Some act out feelings of victimization through anger at and rejection of those who are perceived as even less acceptable than themselves. They fear that these “marginal people” will give all gays and lesbians an even worse image than that which they already hold in the eyes the dominant culture, further impeding gays’ and lesbians’ struggle for acceptance.
Where Does Biphobia Overlap With Homophobia?
There is a considerable overlap between homophobia and biphobia, as well as specific ways in which each is unique. Furthermore, homophobia and biphobia affect men and women differently.
Visible bisexuals, like visible lesbians and gay men, may be targeted for discrimination. If theories of the “lesser oppression” of bisexuals were to hold true, the bisexual teacher whose sexual orientation has been disclosed would merely be reduced to half-time employment, and the bisexual individual being targeted by homophobic teens would get only half-gay bashed (punched and kicked half as many times, or perhaps half as hard?). Homophobia and biphobia inevitably intersect through the common experience of discrimination. To the bigot, we are all alike.
Another area of congruence between the experience of biphobia and the experience of homophobia may be with respect to “coming out” issues. A bisexual coming to terms with a same-sex attraction is likely to experience shame, ambivalence, and discomfort similar to that experienced by lesbians and gay men. Most world cultures deny both homosexuality and bisexuality, present distorted images of both homosexuals and bisexuals, and prevent the dissemination of accurate information about both groups to people in the general population.
In summary, we are all oppressed, and we can all be targeted. Whether the cause of this oppression is called homophobia or biphobia, it hurts everyone.
Most bi people I have met come laden with painful stories of rejection by both heterosexuals and lesbians and gay men.
A primary manifestation of biphobia is the denial of the very existence of bisexual people, attributable to the fact that many cultures think in binary categories, with each category having its mutually exclusive opposite. This is powerfully evident in the areas of sex and gender. Male and female, and heterosexuality and homosexuality are seen as “opposite categories.” Those whose sexual orientation defies simple labeling or those whose sex or gender is ambiguous may make us profoundly uncomfortable.
Thus, bisexuals create discomfort and anxiety in others simply by the fact of our existence. We are pressured to remain silent, as our silence allows the dominant culture to exaggerate the differences between heterosexual and homosexual and to ignore the fact that human sexuality exists on a continuum. It is much less threatening to the dominant heterosexual culture to perpetuate the illusion that homosexuals are “that category, way over there,” very different from heterosexuals. If “they” are extremely different, heterosexuals do not have to confront the possibility of acknowledging same-sex attractions within themselves and possibly becoming “like them.” There is considerable anxiety in being forced to acknowledge that the “other” is not as different from you as you would like to pretend.
Because of our cultural erasure, bisexuality tends to be invisible except as a point of conflict. Given that studies reveal that only a small percentage of bisexuals are simultaneously involved with persons of both genders (Rust, 1991) and that we tend to assume that a person’s sexual orientation corresponds to the sex of his or her current partner, it is difficult to make our bisexuality visible in daily life. As a result, most people usually “see” bisexuality only in the context of uncomfortable situations: a closeted married man contracts HIV from sex with another man and his wife contracts the virus; a woman leaves her lesbian relationship for a male lover. Often, when bisexuality is given attention, it is portrayed as a transitional category, an interim stage in an original or subsequent coming-out process, usually from heterosexual to homosexual. This has the effect of associating bisexuality in many people’s minds with conflict and impermanence.
The word bisexual itself may be seen as a product of binary thinking and, therefore, problematic. Many people struggling to understand bisexuality can only imagine the concept as a 50-50 identity. In their minds, if a third category exists, then it must fall midway between the other two categories and have clearly defined, unchanging parameters. Using this measurement, they will find very few “true” bisexuals. Many people also assume that a bisexual must need a lover of each sex to be satisfied, raising the specter of non-monogamy, another hot button for many.
This association of bisexuality with non-monogamy is a source of biphobia within heterosexual communities, especially since the arrival of HIV and AIDS. In the minds of many, bisexuality has come to be strongly identified with images of married, closeted men bringing HIV to their wives and children through unsafe sex with other men, and these stereotypes are amply reinforced in the media. This has been a common theme since the second half of the 1980s and has most recently manifested itself in a frenzy of media attention about the “down low” – African American men who have sex with men and with women but who identify neither as bisexual nor as gay.
Biphobia directed at bisexuals by gay men and lesbians is complex. Its roots lie in the dynamics of oppression and the particular historical contexts affecting the growth and development of individual gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. Coming out and living as gay can be very difficult. Many gay men and lesbians have experienced a great deal of hurt and rejection, and shared pain is one of the foundations on which many “lesbian and gay” communities have historically been based. External oppression may create a sense of not being safe and a strong need to maintain a clear boundary between “us” and “them.” Bisexuals are by definition problematic in this regard, blurring the boundaries between insider and outsider. And further, bisexual visibility within the lesbian and gay community calls into question the inaccurate assumption that there is a monolithic lesbian and gay community with a single set of standards and values, composed of individuals who all behave similarly and predictably.
Lesbians and gay men may also fear that they are unable to compete with the benefits our culture accords to those in different-sex relationships, believing that those who have a choice will ultimately choose heterosexuality. Many lesbians and gay men believe that bisexuals have less commitment to “the community,” and that whatever a lesbian or gay man might have to offer to their bisexual partner will not be enough to outweigh the external benefits offered to those who are in heterosexual relationships. There is some realistic basis for this fear: Heterosexual relationships are privileged, and many bisexuals, like many lesbians and gay men, adopt at least a public front of heterosexuality to avoid family censure, develop careers, and raise children with societal approval. However, I also believe that this line of reasoning shows some internalized homophobia. Many bisexuals, even with this perceived choice, still choose same-sex relationships. What gets lost in the fear is the fact that same-sex relationships also offer benefits not available in heterosexual relationships: the absence of scripted gender roles, freedom from unwanted pregnancy, the ease of being with someone with more similar social conditioning, and so on. Most important, the psychic cost of denying one’s love for a particular person can be astronomical.
Biphobia does not come only from the outside. Internalized biphobia can be powerful, sometimes overpowering, and the experience of isolation, illegitimacy, shame, and confusion felt by many bisexuals can be disempowering, even disabling.
Even today, with modest improvements in this area, bisexuals have few role models. Due to bisexual invisibility and the paucity of bisexual role models or bisexual community, most bisexuals develop and maintain our bisexual identities in isolation.
Most bisexuals spend a majority of our time in the community that corresponds with the sex and sexual orientation of our romantic partner. As a result, we may experience a sense of discontinuity if we change partners and our partner is of a different sex, or if we shift back and forth between two differing communities over time. Other bisexuals have a strong social affiliation with either a heterosexual, lesbian, or gay community. This can result in another set of conflicts: if our partner is not of the “correct” sex, then we may feel guilt or shame for having “betrayed” our friends and community. Because of these potential difficulties, many people privately identify as bisexual but, to avoid conflict and preserve their ties to a treasured community, choose to identify publicly as lesbian, gay, or straight or to stay silent, allowing others to presume that they do, further contributing to bisexual invisibility.
Therefore, it is not surprising that some bisexuals find their bisexual desire more a burden than a gift. They may feel a pressure or a wish to choose between heterosexuality and homosexuality to make their lives easier and avoid internal and external conflict. Many desire the ease they imagine would come with having one clear, fixed, socially acceptable identity. The behavior of individual bi people, as members of a stigmatized group, is frequently seen as representative of all bisexuals. Thus, a bi-identified person may feel a sense of shame when any bisexual person behaves in such a way as to reinforce negative stereotypes of bisexual people. And we can feel an even more profound sense of shame when our own behavior happens to mirror one of the existing stereotypes of bisexuals (such as practicing polyamory, or leaving one relationship for another). Although some bisexual people do behave in ways that conform to negative stereotypes about bisexuals, it is actually the dynamics of prejudice that cause others to use such actions to generalize their stereotyping and prejudiced behavior to an entire group.
Ironically, bisexual individuals in monogamous relationships may also experience difficulties, feeling that their maintenance of a bisexual identity constitutes a double betrayal of both their community of primary identification (straight or gay) and of their partner. Alternatively, the bi person’s partner may feel that a bi person’s decision to continue to identify as bisexual, despite being in a monogamous relationship, somehow withholds full commitment to the relationship and holds out the possibility of other relationships. This overlooks the fact that one’s identity is, in actuality, separate from particular choices made about relationship involvement or monogamy.
So, how do we make things better? Given so many obstacles, both internal and external, discussed above, how can a bisexual person come to a positive bisexual identity?
Understand the social dynamics of oppression and stereotyping. Get support and validation from others. Join a support group, subscribe to an email list, attend a conference, read books about bisexuality. Get a good bi-positive therapist, and find a friend (or two or twenty) to talk to.
Silence kills. I encourage bisexual people to come out as bisexual to the maximum extent that you can do so safely. Life in the closet takes an enormous toll on our emotional well-being. Bisexuals must remember that neither bisexuals nor gays and lesbians created heterosexism and that as bisexuals, we are its victims as well as potential beneficiaries. Although we must be aware that we, as bisexuals, sometimes have privileges* that have been denied to gays, lesbians, and transgender people of any orientation, this simply calls for us to make thoughtful decisions about how to live our lives. We did not create the inequities, and we must not feel guilty for who we are; we need only be responsible for what we do.
Bisexuals, along with lesbians, gay men, and supportive heterosexuals must open our hearts and minds to celebrate the true diversity among us. Our success lies in creating a space where the full spectrum of our relationships is respected and valued, including those that are unlike our own. We must remember that each person is unique and also that we have much in common. Labels can unite us, but they can also stifle us and constrict our thinking when we forget that they are merely tools. Human beings are complex, and labels will never be adequate to the task of representing us. It is impossible to reduce a lifetime of experience to a single word.
If biphobia and homophobia are not allowed to control us, we can move beyond our fears and learn to value our differences as well as our similarities.
*From the perspective of 2020, I now understand that the category of bisexual includes many transgender people and also that some transgender people (those transgender people who are not “read” by others as transgender) may have similar “passing privilege.” As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, passing (not being seen) is a burden as well as a privilege.
Allport, Gordon, The Nature of Prejudice. Reading MA, etc.: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1954.
Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.
Rust, Paula, “The Politics of Sexual Identity: Sexual Attraction and Behavior Among Lesbian and Bisexual Women,” in Social Problems, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Nov. 1992).
Thompson, Cooper and Zoloth, Barbara, “Homophobia,” a pamphlet produced by the Campaign to End Homophobia (Cambridge MA, 1990).
In Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, ed. Robyn Ochs and Sarah Rowley. Boston: Bisexual Resource Center, 2005, pp. 201-205.