Isolation, Health, And The Bisexual Community

Isolation_StreetAt the beginning of June, a study came out about the health differences of BLGT people versus straight people. When I heard about it I figured it would show something similar to what previous studies with the same idea have shown: that overall BLGT people have worse health, more depression and higher suicide rates than straight people. Considering the hurdles so many have to face, such results are unfortunately not surprising.

However, this study was different in two ways: first, its sample was from one entire state, Massachusetts, and second, a major difference was noticed and pointed out about bisexuals and how they compare to both straight people and gay and lesbian people. The ultimate finding: bisexuals, especially bisexual women, have the worst health of all of the groups that were studied.

This quote sums up some of the more alarming findings: “Compared to heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were more likely to say their health was worse on 16 of 22 measures. They were more likely to be tense or worried, to smoke, have asthma, abuse drugs, or be victims of sexual abuse. Bisexual men and women were also more likely than heterosexuals to say they faced barriers to getting health care, had higher cardiovascular risk, felt sad, and had contemplated suicide in the past year. Binge drinking was more common among bisexual women than heterosexuals. Bisexuals, but not gays or lesbians, were more likely than heterosexuals to be poor. Bisexual women were the most likely to report having been sexually assaulted. ‘All told, bisexual women had the worst health,’ Conron [the scientist who did the study] said in an interview. ‘We were surprised that there were such differences for bisexual people compared to gay and lesbian people.’ Although the study didn’t investigate the causes for the gaps among people with different sexual orientations, Conron said she hopes further research will look at the social stigma bisexual people may face not only from heterosexuals, but also from gay men and lesbians. ‘Bisexual people may feel in between the two and may not necessarily be fully accepted by either group,’ she said. ‘I think it merits further investigation. We know isolation is bad for health.’ ”

I have to admit, it was nice to see the researcher of a study come right out and admit that isolation is a big problem for many bisexuals instead of trying to make the usual excuses. Of course, this is not good news. But as much as I hate to say it, is it really surprising? Bisexuals face some of the worst ostracism of any sexual minority group. Often we are rejected by the straight world, and contrary to popular belief, this can happen even if we are in an opposite-gender relationship if we admit to being bisexual. We start to hope there is an accepting community out there for us, and hearing the letters BLGT gives us hope.

However, too often, we face ridicule, exclusion, and social pressure, as well as being told we don’t exist, and being blatantly made fun of in some cases. Who wouldn’t have issues when their existence in constantly questioned? The very first comment under the article that totally misses the point of it illustrates how far we still have to go: “They may have the poorest health, but they get to play for both teams. So they have their perks.”

So, what can we in the bisexual community do about this? Fighting for acceptance is the first step, and not backing down about it. If we are excluded from something, we should do what the transgender community does (and possibly team up with them!) and have our own version of the event. We also need to reach out to newly out bisexuals or people who may be about to come out as bisexual; they need to know that there is a community that supports them. Secondly, there need to be health programs specifically aimed at bisexuals to help us deal with our unique set of problems, something other than just lumping us in with “BLGT.”

I’ve read that more health programs aimed at bisexuals are popping at BLGT centers, so that is a good place to start. Bisexual organizations need to strongly encourage such programs. Thirdly, there need to be more studies like this one done that take the unique experiences of bisexuals into account; hopefully more such studies will lead to a dialogue between the straight, bisexual, and gay and lesbian communities. I hope this study and others like it will get peoples’ attention and eventually lead to some gains, understanding, and acceptance for the bisexual community.

The Perception of Attraction

oppinionAs I was reading this article by my co writer, Peter Ruggiero, I was struck by this quote: “On top of this, there are some extra challenges for the bisexual male. If you’re one of the “regular guys,” folks may not want to believe that you are also attracted to other men. If you’re a man who’s gender atypical, folks often have a hard time believing you like women. I have a friend, also named Peter, whom I like to quote on this subject; “I’m here, I’m queer and I like women too. Get used to it!”’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

That really made me think—being in the bisexual community has taught me not to judge people by appearances and even mannerisms, because those are not set in stone and mean different things to different people, and can change over time. This brings with it a certain openness, to get to know people for who they are on the inside, not outside, and not to follow stereotypes. Basically, don’t judge a book by its cover, but there is much more to it even than that.

One problem people have with understanding bisexuality seems to be based on understanding gender and gender roles. If a person doesn’t fit into a certain perceived gender box, i.e. they don’t behave, look, or dress in a way that is supposed to fit with their gender, then they can’t possibly be bisexual. This has been a problem for the gay and lesbian community as well, as many masculine gay men and feminine lesbians will tell you—but it seems to be an even bigger problem for bisexuals, because of the duality of our attractions, and because we sometimes change roles and demeanor depending on what community we are in.

If a man is considered masculine, he can’t possibly be attracted to men, if he is perceived as more feminine, then he can’t possibly be attracted to women. For women, if you are “too butch”, it’s hard to imagine you liking men, and if you’re what is considered a feminine woman, people have a hard time believing you can be attracted to other women. I’ve experienced it myself—depending on how I dress, or act, my hair length, my nails-I have to be either gay or straight, because I “can’t possibly be attracted to (insert either gender).” A few weeks ago I met what many would consider a very “butch looking lesbian”—who started telling me she’s actually bisexual and dates men as well as women. I admit, even I had thought she was a lesbian by first glance-which really goes to show that unfortunately these stereotypes get ingrained in all of us at some level.

Since there is a mainstream gay and lesbian community, and several stereotypes have grown up around it (all gay men are feminine acting, all lesbians are masculine acting), bisexuals often get caught between the stereotypes—if we behave “too straight”, we must really be straight and just “experimenting”, if we behave “too gay” we must just be denying we are really gay. These stereotypes that both sides have of each other run rampant in both communities. I tried dissecting it in the gay community once, and asking “what does it actually mean to be too straight? Am I acting too feminine for you? Does this mean I can’t possibly be attracted to women? Would you say that to someone who considers herself a “femme” lesbian?” Naturally I didn’t get an answer, just a look of confusion.

I’m sure if I asked in the straight community-“what exactly does it mean to be too gay?” If a woman doesn’t wear skirts, or has short hair, or is too opinionated— does that automatically mean she can only be attracted to women and not men? If a guy is short, not into sports, and not stereotypically masculine, is he automatically attracted to only men and not women? We’ve seen those stereotypes broken over and over again, that how someone looks or even acts in a given situation doesn’t determine who they can be attracted to—there’s even a name for it in the gay community—“straight acting” gay man or woman” and yet the stereotypes persist.

Then we have the idea of “well you don’t act like a bisexual”—how is a bisexual person supposed to act? Should we have someone of each gender on each arm? Should we be a cross between a gay stereotype and a straight one? Do I need a sign? Do I need to actively chase both men and women in front of people? I never seem to get answers to any of these questions either.

So to paraphrase Peter’s friend: “I’m here, I’m queer, and I like men too. Get used to it!”

Bisexual Women: What are Our Unique Challenges?

bisexual womenOn a GLBT social site, I run a group for bisexual women. Last week, I asked them the question, “What challenges do you feel that we bisexual women face that are unique to us — both in the GLBT and straight communities?” Today I decided to write and answer that question myself, from my own perspective and my own experiences.

I would say the two main challenges many of us face in both communities are being taken seriously and visibility. Biphobia has gotten significantly better since the 90’s, and although we don’t get many of the comments that Transsexual people get, we still struggle to make our mark in both communities. We need to bring out the “B” in GLBT.

Both communities have one significant thing in common — they want to label us and put us in a box. They ask, “are you one of us, or one of them? You can’t be both!” My reply is always “why not?” to which the answer is a look of bemusement.

In the straight community, bi women seem to be perceived with both a sense of odd fascination and as sex objects. Visibility isn’t as much of a problem here, but it’s not the kind of visibility we want. One of the first questions we often get asked is “can I watch?” or “can we have a threesome?” Our sexuality is often seen as a joke — a drunken experiment, a way to please a male partner, or a cry for attention. While there are some women who fall into those categories, the majority of bisexual women are serious and honest about their sexuality. We don’t want it to be treated as a joke. Many men are in awe of the idea of us, but most of them wouldn’t want a long term relationship with us. We’re just something fun to sleep with a few times. The problem arises in mentioning anything resembling a serious committed relationship; many of them fear we will leave them for a woman. This overlooks the current statistics that it is just as likely that a straight woman would leave them for another man.

The acceptance of the straight community is a backbiter for the bi women community because the “sexual popularity” of bisexual women colors the perception for lesbians. No one wants to be made into a full-time joke or an adolescent fantasy; it’s often popular to have a “woman on woman” scene in a straight porn movie. The most unfortunate part of this scenario is that it is often with two straight women who do not want to be doing it, and they make it obvious. In that light it feels like a slap in the face to all women — who are in loving relationships with other women, regardless of whether they are lesbian or bisexual. This image being presented causes many people to see it as simply something to titillate and arouse.

This has been a growing trend on TV shows; there are more and more female bisexual characters that have full story arcs, instead of being made into just some arousing sideshow. While it is good to see that, you can’t help but notice that it follows the same pattern. It begins with the character going out and having one night stands with a few girls, usually involving alcohol. When the time in the story comes for a serious relationship, it is always with a man. Many lesbians and bisexual women resent this as it perpetrates two horrible myths:

There is no such thing as a “real” lesbian. I can’t even dignify this one with a response.

A bi-woman will always leave a woman for a man. This is the most destructive because it sabotages relationships before they even form.

I have to admit, it would be nice to see a stable female/female relationship on prime-time, and while I have this pipe-dream why not have one involving at least one bisexual woman? The problem is that even when there is one, it does not usually end well, and the character usually ends up with a man.

As a complete opposite of the social syndrome surrounding bi women, bi men experience near complete invisibility. If you think this an exaggeration, consider what happens when a male politician is caught with a man. The first and only assumption made is that he is gay and hiding it. The possibility that he may be bisexual is not even considered.

In the GLBT world, there is the opposite problem when it comes to bisexual women and it provides a dark reflection of perceptions in the straight world. Bisexual women, rather then being lauded instead — exist in the state of invisibility, that bisexual men have in the straight world. If there is a bisexual woman on a gay show, such as the L word, she is turned into a lesbian as time goes on. The message that is sent is that if you have any feelings for women at all, you are a lesbian. Even if you experiment with a guy once in a while, it’s just a phase or a fad and not to be taken seriously. If someone does insist they are fully bisexual, in both worlds, especially in movies, they are too often shown as “unstable” and “unable to make up their minds”.

In a group, I go to for bisexual women that meets once a month. Many of the women talked about having turned to dating only bi women, because of the perception of bi women perpetrated upon lesbians.

Before anyone thinks I’m bashing straight men or lesbians, I’m not. I’ve met many of both that are great people and are wonderfully supportive, that take me seriously, and I’m thankful for them, and I really hope there will be more of them. But unfortunately the trends I mentioned in both communities, even though they have gotten better over the years and are getting better with younger people, continue to persist. I think one way to overcome these challenges, other than what we are already doing by educating people, is to have more of our own “space”. A more general problem in the GLBT community at large is that too often things become more about the G and the L. Many polls have been conducted, and at least as many people identify as bisexual as the total of gay and lesbian. So why are we not more vocal, and more visible?

We need more “just bisexuals” places to call our own. It will help promote both visibility and seriousness. Websites like this one are a great start, along with the bi radio. I’ve heard that some cities have bisexual bars, and that’s great. I want to see more of those — more bi blogs, more bi news places, more of a community and togetherness. It’s harder to see something as a joke, and to keep thinking, it’s invisible and it doesn’t exist — when many people stand behind it and make their voices heard. We women especially need to spearhead this.

When gay people first started coming out of the closet there was a lot of fear, marginalization, and backlash. We can learn from them for they united and they persevered have really managed to build a community for themselves. We need to emulate them — and while working to put the B in GLBT, we also need to have more of a “B” to ourselves.