Bisexuals show increased visibility

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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If there were any doubts that bisexuals existed after the stir caused by the now infamous 2005 New York Times article "Straight, Gay or Lying?", the bisexual community is responding in force this year by coming out loud and proud.

Bisexuals are all over the place, from a plethora of books to a category of their own at the Lambda Literary Foundation's Lammy book awards to the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival's "Bi Request" film panel and two feature films, The DL Chronicles and The Two Sides of the Bed (Los dos lados de la cama). LGBT groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have also turned their attention to bis in recent months. Micah Kellner, 28, (D) became the first out bisexual to win elected office this year when he won a New York Assembly seat.

According to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 3.7 million bisexual people in the United States.

Yet, the question remains, how have an estimated 1.9 million bisexual women and 1.8 million bisexual men remained largely invisible or misunderstood?

The bi visibility issue, according to bisexual experts and activists, is a mixture of the inability to identify individuals as bisexual (unless they come out), along with biphobia and the myths that perpetuate the general misunderstanding of bisexuals.

"Bisexuals are a confusing bunch when it comes to appearances," said Pepper Mint, 32, a bisexual man who is a computer programmer and organizes the Bay Area Bisexual Network's contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade. "It just sucks. It means that it's extremely hard to find people like me, even though chances are there are lots of them."

There is no clear marker to identify bisexuals. In general, people tend to read a person's sexual orientation depending on certain signals or perceived gender ideas or who someone is partnered with, according to bisexual experts and individuals who spoke with the Bay Area Reporter. lang=EN

Mint said that he tends to be read as queer, "short of wearing a shirt that says 'hi! I'm bisexual.' I would need to do that to be out to every straight person I met."

Robyn Ochs, 48, editor of Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, laughed and agreed. "Thank goodness for T-shirts, pens, and conferences, because I can't see any other way to do it."

Identifying who is gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual becomes even trickier once bisexuals date or enter into relationships.

"It's an automatic that people define you by who you are partnered with," said Lani Ka'ahumanu, 63, a longtime bisexual activist and author, who came out as a lesbian during the late 1970s during the height of the women's liberation movement and lesbian separatism. She came out as bisexual during the 1980s. "Visibility for bisexual people is an ongoing challenge until people get over ... quickly assuming that somebody's lesbian, gay, or heterosexual."

Ka'ahumanu admitted that even she has difficulty trying not to assume people's sexual orientation. "I bump into my own assumptions because it's so automatic," she said.

Ochs pointed out that when bisexual women who are partnered in what would be considered a heterosexual relationship – either with a biological man or a transgender man – continue to attend queer social events or work in the LGBT community, they tend to be received with a cold shoulder.

"Mixed sex relationship people are often met with, 'What are you doing here?'" said Ochs, who lives in Boston and has been an out bisexual woman since she was 18. She is currently married to a lesbian, who she has been in a monogamous relationship with for more than 10 years.

Amy Larson, founder of the Chasing Amy Social Club, a six-year-old bisexual women's club, said that she used to leave her wedding ring at home like other married bi women friends when she would go to the Lexington Club, a lesbian bar in San Francisco's Mission District, and other queer women's spaces because of the biphobia she experienced. Larson, who declined to give her age, is married to a heterosexual man (she didn't want to disclose his name), who she met 10 years ago while attending the University of Miami. She described her husband as "very queer friendly."

"He's supportive of everything I do, which is an ideal partner," she said.

"I have bi friends who are afraid to go to the Lexington Club ... because they are afraid that someone is going to tell them that they don't belong in that space," said Larson. "They are afraid that someone is going to do that terrible thing that some people actually do, which is denounce their identity."

Little understood

"The only biphobia I've ever experienced is from the LGBT community, specifically the lesbian community," said Larson, whose coming out slowly evolved from her late teens into her early 20s. She said that she always knew she was bisexual. "I knew I wasn't a lesbian, but I knew I wasn't straight either."

She acknowledged that she's seen less biphobia over the years, but she knows "it's still there." She said that she's seen members of her club who identified as lesbian, but later came out as bisexual lose their queer friends.

"It's like the queer identity card is yanked away," said Larson.

"There are a lot of people that identify as some monosexuality and later identify as bisexual and visa versa," said Amy Andre, 32, who has been out as a bisexual woman since she was 14. "It's pretty common for someone to have had a phase [to] identify as straight or as gay or lesbian before coming to an understanding of themselves as bisexual."

This wasn't the case, Andre said, for herself.

Andre who is a sexologist and the training and professional development manager at Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, said that it's a "common misperception that being bisexual is a phase ... a lot of people think the one thing is true, but really the opposite is true."

Andre said that research showed that people were more often monosexual and later discovered their bisexuality, debunking the myth of "bisexuality being a phase."

"If bisexuality is a phase, it's a very long phase for me," said Ochs, laughing.

Ochs said the assumption that "bisexuality is a phase" is the number one bi myth that she dislikes.

Another detested bi myth, according to the small sample of people the B.A.R. spoke with after the paper received a flood of calls and e-mails in response to a request to interview bisexual men and women for this article, was that bisexuals were promiscuous or non-monogamous (polyamourous). While there are bisexuals, such as Mint and Larson, who identify themselves as polyamourous, there were a number of bisexuals who were either in the process of negotiating having an additional partner after being monogamous with their primary partner for a long period of time or who identified themselves as monogamous.

"All gay men are monogamous, all lesbians are monogamous, and all straight people are monogamous ... ha, ha, ha," Ochs laughed. "I don't believe that bisexuals aren't non-monogamous, but I really believe that we don't own it more than anyone else does."

"We need to understand bisexuality clearly," said Ron Suresha, author of Lambda Literary Foundation-nominated books: Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way and Bi Guys: First Hand Fiction for Bisexual Men and their Admirers. "We need to look at why people are so ignorant about it."

Suresha, 49, who was out as a gay man "since puberty" until four years ago when he came out as bisexual after having cancer surgery.

"The shame is pervasive and we seem to attach a disproportionate amount of shame to bisexuality," said Suresha. "[I] no longer had the luxury of time to deny any part of myself."

Becoming visible

When bisexuals do come out, it generally means that they have to come out over and over again, unlike gay, lesbian, and straight individuals. On top of that, bisexual individuals find themselves constantly educating people each time they come out. Some bisexuals prefer to be selective about who they come out to, just like gay and lesbian individuals.

Ka'ahumanu, who worked alongside the late Harvey Milk during the 1970s, believes in Milk's philosophy that gays and lesbians need to come out so the world can see who they are. She believes bisexuals should do the same thing.

It's also important to Cliff Arnesen, 58, who has been out as bisexual since he was 10.

"That is the only way we are going to get visibility," said Arnesen.

Arnesen is the only out bisexual man who testified before the United States House Committee on Veterans Affairs in Congress in 1989 on behalf of LGBT veterans. A former Vietnam veteran, Arnesen admitted his bisexuality in 1966 and was court-martialed and sentenced to a year of hard labor in the stockade. In 1967, he was given an "undesirable discharge" based on homosexuality. His discharge was later changed to a "general discharge" by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, but only after years of shame and self-destructive behavior, Arnesen said.

Arnesen is now the president of the New England Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Veterans, which he has been a member of for nearly 19 years. He advocates heavily for lifting the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Cynthia Frawley, 36, who is an on-air producer for "OutQ in the Morning with Larry Flick" on Sirius OutQ radio, didn't experience the difficulties that Arnesen encountered. Frawley, who is married to a heterosexual man, told the B.A.R. that she navigated through the biphobia within the queer and straight communities.

A huge part of the problem for Frawley was, "I didn't see anyone like me." Added to that was the polarizing response from women asking her why she couldn't be "just a lesbian" and straight men who wanted to watch her having sex with another woman or have a threesome.

"It was all carnival and disgusting, really," said Frawley.

Today, Frawley is increasingly speaking out about being a bisexual woman and mother working for a queer radio station. She attributes her recent openness to "getting older" and discovering her influence upon listeners.

"I've gotten so many e-mails from listeners saying, 'I thought I was the only one,'" said Frawley. She is now trying to take advantage of her position. "It's really become a real question of pride for me. I am connecting with so many more people who are just like me. They are feeding me and I am feeding them ... I just feel really blessed."

The Chasing Amy Social Club, which has grown to an estimated 500 members, will have its first contingent in Sunday's LGBT Pride Parade.

"There are actually a huge number of bisexuals at Pride, you just can't see them," said Mint. "I think that it's very important that people, when they go to Prides � while they may see a little bisexual contingent in the parade that is a small fraction of the bisexuals that are actually there."