Not Just A Phase: Bisexuality, Invisibility and Invalidation

Of the identities that together form the full rainbow of the LGBTQ+ community, the “B” is one of the least visible despite its sizable population. Per the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, “self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States.” LGBTQ+ refers to all of the people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (a reclaimed term used to refer to all other identities not represented by the ones listed). However, not all people feel represented by the word “queer,” and the plus sign is meant to be inclusive of those communities.

A pink, purple, and blue flag flies to represent bi pride.
“The bisexual pride flag.” Source: Peter Salanki, Creative Commons.

To understand the experience of bisexual people, one must first understand the basics of gender and sexuality. Gender is a term that describes the social representation of biological reproductive processes, while one’s gender identity is based on personal identities, or the “internal perception of one’s gender” (SafeZone Project).  Gender is what most people attach words like “man” and “woman” to, but can encompass a variety of identities such as agender (one who does not experience gender identity), polygender (one who experiences multiple gender identities), and genderfluid (can experience a combination of gender identities depending on the day).  Sexual orientation is the “sexual, romantic, emotional/spiritual attraction” that one experiences, often depending on which gender/genders that they are attracted to. Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual are all examples of different sexual orientations, though a wide variety exists in addition to those listed.

Bisexuality (bi) does not have one all-inclusive definition, but the term “bisexual” generally refers to a person who experiences attraction to people of their own gender as well as people outside of their gender. The experience of bisexuality can be shared by pansexual people. The two terms overlap, as pansexual people experience attraction regardless of gender. Typically, one differentiates between the two identities with respect to how an individual identifies themselves; some bisexual people could technically be called pansexual (and vice versa), but the most inclusive practice is to respect each individual/community as they define their own experience.

A couple embraces in the street during a gay pride demonstration.
“Thousands march in Madrid to claim an anti-capitalist and combative Gay Pride.” Source: Adolfo Lujan, Creative Commons.

Semantics aside, bi people have faced a long history of adversity with very little notoriety. Bisexuality as an identity has been chronically invalidated, demonized, and even blatantly ignored. Discrimination towards bisexual people has long been enforced by a heterosexual society, but many bi people have experienced discrimination from within the LGBT community as well.

According to the oldest bisexual advocacy organization in the United States, bisexual people are more likely to live in poverty, have higher rates of sexual and intimate partner violence, and report higher rates of poor physical/mental health than lesbian, gay or straight people. Research from the same source reveals that “bisexuals are six times more likely than gay men and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation,” and nearly one-quarter of bi people have never shared their orientation with anyone.

One might expect a stronger community backlash to this level of inequality, but biphobia is so pervasive that few dare to speak out. Biphobia, or the aversion to bisexuality, is experienced frequently by bisexual people while in the company of others who assume that they are either heterosexual or homosexual (depending on the bi person’s partner). Bisexuality is a unique identity in that a bi person is not defined by the gender of their partner, and this heteronormative invisibility is what makes the bi existence so difficult. UC San Diego’s LGBT Resource Center puts it this way:

“Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual people are invested, and find a sense of security in being the ‘other’ to each other, and unite in the fact that they are only attracted to either the ‘same’ or the ‘opposite’ gender/sex. This sets up another ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic which effectively marginalizes bisexual people as ‘other.’ Integral to this dynamic is the automatic assumption people can be defined by the gender/sex of their current or potential romantic interest.”

An openly bisexual person often experiences the condescending attitudes of those who think that it’s just a phase. Straight people assume that bisexuals will eventually revert back to heterosexual “normalcy,” while LGBTQ+ people may assume that the bi identity is merely a “half-gay, half-straight” phase that will culminate in a homosexual identity later on. However, research provides data to the contrary – a longitudinal study found that 92% of bisexual women still identified as bisexual over ten years later. To be clear, sexual orientation is not validated or invalidated based on its fluidity. This data only provides evidence that bisexuality can be a stable orientation.  These attitudes are reinforced by the assumption that society is separated into a heterosexual norm and a homosexual other, leaving little room for the huge spectrum of sexuality that falls between gay and straight.

“C.D. Kirven with the Trans Pride Flag while Get Equal flies the Bisexual & Rainbow Pride Flags.” Source: Melissa Kleckner, Creative Commons.

The statement “I’m bisexual” can also lead down a different but equally terrible path – the inevitable, half-joking “That’s hot!” or “Oh, so you want to have a threesome?” The stereotype that bisexual people are hypersexual is both degrading and exhausting. “Hypersexual” stereotypes assume that certain people are more likely to frequently engage in sexual activity with a lesser degree of moral restraint; this stereotype is applied to many identities other than bisexuals, and is particularly common for black and Latina women. Far too often, the experience of coming out as bi in addition to the perception of hypersexuality ends in an unwanted sexual invitation that can be traumatic, particularly considering the high rate of sexual violence among the bi community. The can permeate and negatively affect bisexual relationships, as their partner may struggle with trust issues resulting from this widespread misrepresentation. Some people may even avoid relationships with bisexuals altogether for fear of infidelity.

Each of these experiences results in the invalidation of bisexuality. Being bisexual is valid in itself, not as a stepping stone to a different sexual orientation or as a prop to spice up your heterosexual love life. Additionally, bisexuality is not the easy way out. An assumption exists that, even if the bisexual orientation is valid, bi people will eventually settle down into an opposite-gender relationship in order to bypass social discrimination that accompanies an LGBTQ+ identity. However, bisexual people in heterosexual-passing relationships are still equally affected by discrimination, biphobia, and invalidation; “passing” as straight does not negate the hardships that are tied to the bisexual experience.

Biphobia, invisibility, and discrimination are some of the most subversive yet malicious tools that are used to maintain the societal fabric of heteronormativity. Limiting or invalidating the bisexual orientation only strengthens the gay/straight dichotomy that holds us all back from freely experiencing the full spectrum of sexuality and gender. It’s easy to proclaim that the system should change, but realistically, what can we do to reduce injustice for bi people? First, you should examine your own thoughts and attitudes towards bisexuality. It’s easy to be complicit in biphobia and erasure if you aren’t aware of your unconscious bias. If you find and acknowledge any prejudicial tendencies, challenge those thoughts. Don’t assume a person’s sexual orientation based on their partners – ask them! If you witness a casual biphobic joke, call it out instead of being silent. Make room for bisexual people within the LGBT community. Above all, respect everyone’s identity enough to support and validate the terms that they choose for themselves.

The History of Pride

Pride Flag flying
Rainbow Pride Flag. Source: Benson Kua, Creative Commons.

The month of June is known as Pride Month for the LGBTQ community. Pride means more than its dictionary definition to the LGBTQ community and has a long history.

The fight for marriage equality began in 2010 with United States v. Windsor. This case challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This Act stated that only marriages between a man and a woman were recognized by the federal government, but allowed for state governments to recognize them. Edith Windsor was widowed after her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, who passed away in 2009. She was the sole survivor of their estate. Windsor and Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007, and their marriage was recognized by their home state of New York. Spyer left in her will that the estate would be left to Windsor, but because their marriage was not recognized by federal law, over $350,000 in estate taxes was issued to Windsor. If their marriage would have been recognized by the federal government, no taxes would have been issued.

Windsor filed a lawsuit against DOMA and its constitutionality in 2010. At that time, DOMA was upheld by the government; however, in 2011 President Obama and Attorney General Holder announced that they would no longer defend DOMA. The House of Representatives then created a provisionary group to defend DOMA but the district court found the group to be unconstitutional. Windsor was given a refund for the estate taxes she was forced to pay and DOMA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). States were then allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if their governments chose to allow such.

Efforts for marriage equality continued with James Obergefell and John Arthur James, who were residents of Ohio. They decided to go to Maryland to get legally married after years of being together when James was diagnosed as terminally ill. The couple wanted to designate Obergefell as the surviving spouse on the death certificate, but Ohio’s laws allowed for refusal of same-sex marriages and their recognition even if the couple was legally married in another state. Obergefell v. Hodges was brought to the South District Court of Ohio to challenge the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples. The Ohio Registrar agreed that the law was unconstitutional but the Ohio Attorney General decided to uphold the state’s same-sex marriage and recognition ban. The case continued through the fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth circuit courts of Ohio. All but the sixth circuit court agreed that the state-level ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Because all of the courts did not rule the same, a Supreme Court intervention was inevitable. While the case was going through the circuit courts, James passed away.

During two years of appeals, Obergefell v. Hodges became larger. Plaintiffs of Bourke v. Beshear from Kentucky, DeBoer v. Snyder from Michigan, and Tanco v. Haslam from Tennessee were added. The plaintiffs in each of these cases had been denied marriage rights from their home state, even if their marriages happened in another, just as Obergefell had. It was in April of 2015 when Obergefell v. Hodges, which now consolidated the cases from all four states, presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to challenge the states’ same-sex marriage bans constitutionality. Two months later on June 25th,  SCOTUS ruled that marriage is a constitutional right and ruled in favor of marriage equality. This allowed for same-sex marriages to be legalized by the government.

While the historic ruling by SCOTUS happened in 2015, June has been Pride Month for decades before marriage equality. We know Pride Month today as a month-long celebration full of parades, events, and parties. It did not begin that way. The first Pride Parade was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, which is known as “the place that Pride began.”

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Tyler Goodwin

Stonewall Inn, New York City, 1969

It was illegal to engage in homosexual behavior, giving the police the “right” to attack anyone thought to be gay and arrest them. A majority of the gay bars and clubs had been raided and shut down by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). On the evening of June 28th, a group of people gathered at one of the few gay bars that remained open, The Stonewall Inn. The police barged in shouting, “We’re taking the place!” The patrons then began to resist. As those who were at the Stonewall Inn were arrested, a large crowd formed outside of Stonewall. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color and LGBTQ activist was outside. She threw the first brick in protest and ignited the Stonewall Riots. The riots were eventually doused that evening by police reinforcements but protesters returned the next night with over 1,000 people filling the streets. The people of Stonewall emerged victorious by fighting back. As a result of the riots, the police ceased to interfere with LGBTQ safe spaces and no longer attacked them on the streets; and by making headlines across the country, LGBTQ issues were brought to the forefront, organizations were started, and the community began to fight for their rights. The Stonewall Riots began the LGBTQ movement.

Marches, today known as Pride marches, sparked across the US when news spread of the riots. The Stonewall Riots were violent; however, they ignited a nonviolent movement across the nation and world. June has been deemed Pride Month in honor of the riots.

A Symbol of Unity, Hope, and Safety

The first Pride Flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, in San Francisco. It was in honor of Harvey Milk, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk tasked Baker with drafting up a design for his campaign. His platform was hope for the young gay people, saying, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope, and you have to give them hope.” Thus, the Pride Flag was born. Milk was the first openly gay person to hold public office in a major US city and was later assassinated for that same reason. After his death, the Pride Flag production increased. Businesses all over San Francisco were flying them proudly in remembrance of Milk. “The flag is an action – it is more than just a cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on his car or his house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action,” Baker said, “I am astounded that people just got it…that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us.”

The original Pride Flag had seven colors, with fuchsia, which represented sexuality, at the top. However, due to a shortage of fuchsia in the factory where it was reproduced, it was condensed to the six-color flag that flies today. The remaining six colors also represent something powerful and meaningful to the LGBTQ+ community. Red stands for life. To some people, coming out as LGBTQ can mean life or death. In a lot of scenarios, when one comes out their family shuns them, kicks them out, and/or verbally abuses them. This pushes a lot of youths to suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people, and LGBT youth are four times likelier to attempt than straight youths, according to the Trevor Project. Red represents the importance of life, and how giving up on it is never the answer. Orange represents healing powers of love in the community. Yellow is for sunlight. It is a metaphor for being yourself rather than hiding in the shadows. Green stands for nature and everyone’s ties to it. Blue represents serenity, which is defined as a state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled. Finally, violet stands for spirit, which is the most important of all the colors, as the spirit unique and inalienable.

Other symbols of Pride and safe-spaces have also emerged in the past few years. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have trademarked the yellow equal sign with a blue background. This symbol is known in the United States but the Pride Flag remains the prominent international symbol.

Human Rights Campaign. Source: Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons

Progress has been made for the LGBTQ community, but there have been large setbacks as well. During Pride Month last year, 49 lives were taken at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in modern-US history that took place during Orlando’s Pride celebrations. Sean Kennedy was another hate-crime victim. In 2007, he was leaving a bar in South Carolina when he was attacked for his sexuality and died as a result of it. In 1998, Matthew Shepard made headlines across the nation when he was found beaten, tortured, and left to die while tied to a fence in Wyoming.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets fundamental human rights to be universally protected. During Stonewall, the Pulse Shooting, and the individual murders, many rights declared by the UHDR were violated:

  • Article 3: Right to life, liberty, and security of person. The Stonewall Riots happened because queer folk had been attacked by the police without cause, violating their security of person. The Pulse Shooting and the Kennedy and Shepard murders were violations of the right to life.
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman punishment. Shepard was tortured and brutally beaten before he died.
  • Article 7: All are entitled without any discrimination and equal protection to of the law. In the case of Stonewall, NYPD had not only been attacking the LGBTQ community, they were being denied justice by not having their attackers persecuted.
  • Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest. The LGBTQ folk were being arrested for being LGBTQ in New York.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Throughout history and in modern times, the LGBTQ community is targeted simply for existing.

There were many countries that gave same-sex couples the right to marry before the US. The Netherlands, in 2001, became the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriages. Many countries joined the Netherlands, including Canada, Belgium, France, and Ireland to name a few (You can see the timeline of when countries allowed same-sex marriage here). Today, June 30, German Parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage. That makes 22 countries in the last 16 years allowing same-sex marriages, which is important as it shows that the world is growing to be more accepting of the LGBTQ community. Countries that allow same-sex marriage gives validity to its citizens that identify as LGBTQ and promotes a more accepting environment. According to Forbes, when same-sex marriage is legal, LGBTQ youths are less likely to commit suicide and hate-crimes decrease.

In contrast to the 22 countries that allow and support same-sex marriage, there are 76 countries that have anti-LGBTQ laws in effect today. Last week, Turkish police shot rubber bullets at Pride Parade attendees and proceeded to detain who they could. In Chechnya, reports of a concentration camp for those who identify as homosexual made headlines as more than 100 men were abducted, tortured, and few were killed in a systematic purge of the LGBTQ community. 

The world can be a scary place for someone who identifies as LGBTQ. It is imperative that those of us who can remain resilient and visible by not being afraid to show who you are. Showing up at Pride celebrations are easy ways to let the world know that the LGBTQ community exists, and gives comfort to those who cannot “come out”.  That is exactly what Pride Month stands for. It is a time for us to unite and show our pride. Pride means strength, unity, and acceptance.