“You’re just confused. Make up your mind!”
“You’re going through a phase. You’re on your way to being lesbian/gay.”
“You can’t be happy with me, you’ll cheat on me with a man/woman.”
“You’re only saying you’re bisexual to appear cool.”
Have you heard these comments before? These are statements some bisexual people may hear from both straight people or gay people. These are examples of biphobia, discriminatory and/or derogatory remarks, attitudes, or actions toward bisexuality and bisexual people as a group. Biphobia can be seen in overt discrimination or seemingly harmless jokes or statements.
There are many articles out there that talk about the myths and stigmas around bisexuality. This post will not elaborate on that topic, but takes this a step further to briefly explain bisexuality and ways you can be an ally to a bisexual person.
To start, Merriam-Webster defines bisexuality as being sexually attracted to both men and women. This particular definition, in and of itself, is often too limited to encompass the full scope of bisexuality. With the increase of gender expression, our society has started to acknowledge gender is on a spectrum and cannot be contain to a binary (man or woman).
This is why I appreciate Robyn Ochs’ (a bisexual activist) definition becuase it acknowledges the difference between sexual and romantic attraction (or lack thereof) and the gender spectrum. She says:
“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
Pansexuality is sometimes used interchangeably or alongside the term bisexual, as it implies someone who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to people independent of biological sex or gender identity/expression. It doesn’t meant the same thing, however.
So why do bisexual people need allies? Because the pervasiveness of bisexual invisibility and biphobia still exists, both within the straight community and the LGBTQ+ community. Despite making up almost 50% of the LGBTQ+ community, there continues to be minimal visibility, research, and support specifically for bisexual individuals. Many bisexuals report they don’t feel like they belong in either the straight or gay/lesbian community.
It is coming to light bisexuals may be more impacted by minority stress (the experience of chronic stress faced by minority groups) than their lesbian and gay-identified counterparts. Some studies around LGBTQ+ mental health show higher suicide rate in bisexual people than gay/lesbian people. (It should be noted that transgender individuals show the highest suicide rate within the LGBTQ+ community.)
There are also different definitions for an ally (and also differing views on the role of allies, as well). Some may view an ally as someone who is part of the majority community who advocates for those of a marginalized population. (However, you don’t have to be part of the majority group to be an ally). I want to emphasize that simply being sensitive to someone else’s identity is a great foundation to be an ally. You don’t have to go out on a Pride March (although if you do, that’s great!) in order to start fostering a mindset of curiosity, acceptance, and humility about those different from you.
There are three ways to start being an ally to people in the bisexual/pansexual community:
1) Don’t make assumptions
As stated earlier, perhaps the greatest challenge for the bisexual community is bisexual invisibility or bisexual erasure. Western culture is very much built upon mono-sexuality (you’re either gay or straight) and grasping sexuality on a spectrum can be hard. Additionally, Western culture often assumes the lens of monogamy when looking at romantic partnerships. Even if someone is polyamorous and has partners of different genders, there is still an assumption you are with one partner and your identity is based on whichever partner is most salient. (It’s worth clarifying that while polyamory appears more present in the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuals are no more likely to be polyamorous than gay or straight people.)
Bottom line: don’t judge a book (bisexual) by its cover (their partner or behaviors). Do not make assumptions about identify. If someone discloses the gender of their partner and it is either different or the same as their own, do not assume they are either gay or straight. Which leads to our next suggestion…
2) Ask about their identity
This can feel like an awkward thing to bring up, but I can tell you – it is better to clumsily ask how someone identifies than to make assumptions, which may result in discomfort, or further feelings of invisibility or alienation. Most people in the LGBTQ+ community will appreciate you asking how they identify (assuming it’s the appropriate forum for such discussion and you are not outing them without their consent). Your question can be as casual and simple as: “You mentioned having a girlfriend/boyfriend – do you identify as gay/lesbian/bisexual or something else?” Even just the simple act of asking this question shows you are curious about someone’s identity and want to learn about them.
3) Avoid asking questions you would not ask a straight person
There are a lot myths and stigmas out there about bisexuals. (This is a post for another day), but often the best way to avoid asking something offensive is to apply it to the majority.
For example, I’m fairly certain every openly bisexual person as been asked: “So which do you prefer? Men or Women?” (Please don’t do this!)
This is like asking a straight person “So which of the past partners do you prefer?” or “Do you prefer blond or brunettes?” It reduces bisexual people down to their dating choices, which is one aspect of someone’s identity and doesn’t encompass who they are as a person or what their sexuality may mean to them. Bisexual people may show a pattern of dating more of one gender than the other, but chances are, if someone identifies as bisexual they may not have a strong enough preference for one gender in order to feel that either “straight” or “gay” fits them. It feeds into the myth that bisexual people can’t choose or are confused.
Some bisexuals have been labeled as ‘going through a phase’ or ‘indecisive’. Flip this on it’s head – Would you ask a straight person, “Are you sure you’re straight? Have you tried something else? Are you just experimenting?”
Using this measurement (“Would I make this assumption about a straight person?”) is a good way to tell if you are asking something that could be seen as oppressive or offensive.
By taking the time to be curious and go outside your comfort zone, you have started to take steps towards being an ally to bisexual people. While this post is tailored around the bisexual community, these concepts and questions can be tweaked to apply to all types of sexual orientation, gender expression and relationship status to help you be more sensitive and understanding to those within the LGBTQ+ community.
If you are seeking a therapist who is knowledgeable and passionate about working with the LGBTQ+ community please reach out to me at 970-403-4173 for a free consultation. I work with individuals within the LGBTQ+ community and also support those who have loved ones/family within the LGBTQ+ community.
Arianna Smith Counseling LLC