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Descriptors for Sexual Minorities | Asexuality | Homosexuality
Heterosexuality | Bisexuality | Polyamory | The Kinsey Scale | The Gender Pronoun Game | Coming Out
Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns
Bisexuality is the sexual orientation that describes a person's willingness to form romantic and/or sexual relationships with people of either gender.
Bisexuality is commonly misunderstood as a desire to mate with both genders, but this is not always the case. Quite often, the bisexual person simply puts less emphasis on gender when choosing a mate. For some, gender is one of many factors to consider. For others, gender is relatively unimportant and doesn't factor into the selection process at all. And for still others, both genders may have things to recommend them, but the best advantages pale before a simple case of love.
There are a few bisexual people who seem to recognise their orientation very early and with little confusion. But most bisexual people identify as gay or straight for a period of time before coming out (perhaps a second time) as bi. This phenomenon more rarely takes the form of a rather unusual going back in. This confusion occurs because bisexuality requires a confirmation of attraction and/or romance with both genders, which amounts to twice the burden of proof required for other orientations.
In some cases, bisexual people don't recognise themselves as such until very late in life. The problem seems to be that ignorance about bisexuality is so rampant, stereotypes are so unquestioned, and educational information is so difficult to come by that many people assume that bisexuality is not a valid option for them or for anyone else. Really, this is no different from society's understanding of homosexuality before about 1950. Because of this phenomenon of ignorance, it is likely that many bisexual people are still in the closet - even in many cases to themselves1.
Most bisexual people form monogamous commitments, just as most heterosexual and homosexual people do. The gender of their partner will play a role in determining what level of discrimination they will receive from mainstream society and from the gay community, and how difficult it will be for them to have children.
In general, bisexual people experience discrimination in the same way homosexual people do. This includes discrimination by the government and social institutions through laws and policies, and by individuals who may hurl verbal abuse or even violence their way.
It is common for bisexual people to have friends that range across the spectrum of sexual orientation. Bis with same-sex partners still usually participate in mainstream society, and bis with opposite-sex partners often maintain ties to the gay community. It is common for them to experience passing attractions to members of both genders during their committed relationship, but they will not act on them2. If they should lose their current partner, those attractions will again be used to seek a new parter.
The ability of bisexual people to experience and remember both same-sex relationships and opposite-sex ones can cause serious reflection on gender roles. As an example, in countries where same-sex marriages are outlawed, bi people often have very strong opinions about the fact that they can legally marry an opposite-sex partner but not a same-sex one. However, even with these motivators many bisexual people stick to assumptions about gender roles. In fact, bi people can have very different world views and gender is one of many areas where this is true.
There is nothing at all wrong with bisexuality, nor with the huge majority of bisexual people. A thoughful romantic and/or sexual life can lead to great rewards for bi people, just as with everyone else. There is absolutely nothing preventing a bisexual person from getting along well with people of other sexual orientations.
Mainstream Culture's Take on Bisexuality
At this point, media portrayals of bisexual people are still largely based on ignorance. The most frequent stereotype is that of the mentally unstable bisexual villain who engages in elaborate subterfuge to fool the hero and/or heroine. More frequently than not, the plot is resolved when the bisexual villain dies a horrible and extremely painful death. In a few cases, the villain escapes - but usually this is just a ploy to make room for a sequel. In real life, of course, bisexual people are neither more 'evil' nor more intelligent than gay or straight people.
In a few cases, bisexual characters are given minor supportive roles in movies or television shows with gay leads. These may be fully realistic, or the bisexual person may serve merely as cheap comic relief. The only medium where bisexual characters get lead roles with any frequency is pornography, where they are almost always portrayed as promiscuous and sexually insatiable. Bisexual women in pornography may be mislabelled as 'lesbians', only adding to the cultural confusion about what bisexuality is.
The huge majority of straight people retain a great deal of ignorance about bisexuality, often viewing it as homosexuality minus the personal integrity of complete honesty. They cling to stereotypes that bisexual people are untrustworthy, dishonest, promiscuous, insatiable, and generally up to no good. A few straight people immediately cast any bisexual persons they know into the traditional role of villain. They may change their mind if they get to know the person better, or they may not.
It can be quite a challenge to convince a straight person that a bi person who admits to their orientation has more integrity than one who is falsely pretending to be straight. There is almost no understanding that lots of bisexual people are still in the closet. And yet, a surprising number of supposedly straight people feel a need to confess to same-sex urges when a bisexual person comes out to them. It may not occur to them that if they are repressing the occasional attraction, other people are unable or unwilling to do so.
The Gay Community's View of Bisexuality
If the straight community is rife with ignorance and reliance on stereotypes, the gay community's reaction can be much more variable. Some gay people understand bisexuality very well and treat bi people and their differences with respect. Others fall back on the same old stereotypes. There are also a few gay people who think of bisexual folks in the gay community as spies or traitors whose real allegiance is to the straight mainstream culture.
It seems that a few gay people are engaged in a game of transference, where they take the stereotypes for homosexuality and mentally move the most onorous to bisexuals. Bisexual people have even been accused of being responsible for AIDS, for instance, as if it were a given that bisexual people are promiscuous and dishonest about their HIV status while gay people are the opposite. Some gays also assume that bisexual people have no interest in gay rights, and may argue that bi people should be relegated to the sideline of the gay rights movement so their differences do not cloud the 'real' issues.
A common fallacy in both the straight and gay communities is that bisexual people receive no discrimination. Often, the people who hold these views are quite intolerant themselves - forming a sort of Catch-22 where everyone believes they are the only unprejudiced party. Such people often accuse bis of choosing their orientation out of greed, in order to get the most sex with the least effort and pain. They may perhaps have the conviction that if they themselves 'sold out' and became bi, they might have a better love life.
Unfortunately, no orientation label will get you easy dates. For that matter, changing a label won't remove any personality problems you may have. The truth is that bisexual people have difficulty getting and keeping partners in both the straight and gay communities because the stereotypical views of them are so terrible and so unquestioned. Many bisexual people suffer from harsh discrimination by their own partners, who attack or leave them as a pre-emptive strike against the future infidelity that exists only in the fantasy world of stereotypes.
The Bisexual Community
There are no bisexual communities in large cities in the same way that there are gay communities. Rather, most gay communities have adapted to include groups and services appropriate for bis. This means most bisexual people become adept at navigating the mainstream and gay communities with equal grace. However, they may never feel the same sense of relaxed belonging that people of other orientations feel in their respective communities.
There have been (and continue to be) various attempts at creating a specifically bisexual community. The problem seems to be that bisexuality is subject to a great deal of fluidity and individuality. The life experiences of bisexual people can vary tremendously. This makes it harder for bi people to prioritise their needs, expecially since basic rights for people with same-sex partners aren't already in place.
This problem seems to be lessening over time as discrimination against sexual minorities is reduced. If gay people had the same rights as straight people in every way, bisexual people might find themselves agreeing more often. Perhaps because of this factor, there have been recent gains by disparate factions from BiNet USA to Anything That Moves magazine to bi.org.
While it may be possible to attend a group meeting with a limited number of bisexual people if you live in a large city, folks in smaller towns and rural areas don't usually have such experiences. The good news is that many opportunities exist through the Internet for bisexual people to find each other and carry on helpful conversations.
In order to avoid prejudice, many bi people take on the tactics of their homosexual friends in the gay community. They may apply these same strategies to navigate the mainstream community, or they may subvert them to deal with prejudice in the gay community. For instance, bi people in the gay community may allow acquaintances to wrongly assume they are gay if they fear discrimination otherwise.
What bisexual people don't generally do is employ dishonesty or subterfuge to escape discrimination. Because the stereotype for bi people includes shiftiness and untrustworthiness, bi people are usually very conscious of the fact that they will be fulfilling the worst stereotypes if they do not exhibit exemplary and upright behaviour at all times. Attempts to escape discrimination through subterfuge tend to blow up in the bisexual person's face, where honesty and openness are often grudgingly admired if strongly adhered to.
Bisexual people are often assumed to be homosexual or heterosexual depending on the gender of their current partner. Coming out, then, can be a powerful tool for setting the record straight. Unfortunately, bisexual people can find coming out to be particularly burdensome, since a few people are adamant that bisexuality doesn't exist.
Some straight people will inflict less hostility on a bi person in an opposite-sex relationship, while some members of the gay community will be more fair if the bi person is in a same-sex relationship. If a bisexual person is in the unusual situation of having at least one partner of each gender, this doesn't mean the discrimination will disappear. It merely means that it will come equally from both sides.
This is also true when the bi person is single or celibate. Single bisexual folks are usually presumed heterosexual by the mainstream community and homosexual when appearing in the gay community. It seems everyone sees what they want to see. Of course, the moment the bisexual person comes out they become subject to discrimination by members of both communities. But if they don't come out, they may later be accused of subterfuge. There's really no way to completely avoid prejudice.
In a sense, bisexuality is a relatively invisible orientation. A person who assumes everyone is straight or gay can get away with it much of the time. But this is changing. While bi people have always been active in the fight for gay rights, the past two decades have marked a change. Most gay rights groups now acknowledge the existence of bi members in their group, sometimes by adding the word bisexual or the letter B to their name.
Bisexual people are also coming out in increasing numbers. As with homosexuality, they are finding that straight and gay people who have multiple bisexual friends and acquaintances are more accepting and less prejudiced. There is, after all, strength in numbers.
Finally, there is a growing awareness that bisexual people have a unique perspective on gender roles, gay rights, and other issues pertaining to sexual orientation. While the mass media may not have caught on in most areas, more and more individuals are recognising that bi people are neither gay, nor straight, nor something in between. They are themselves, and they are worthwhile in their own right.