Faith Cheltenham can’t stand it when people think she’s straight.
“I came out of the closet 15 years ago and have been a part of the queer community. I happened to fall in love with a guy, and I don’t want to be kicked out of my culture,” Faith, the president of Bi Net USA, told Campus Progress. Marrying a man instantly made her sexual orientation invisible, she said.
Bisexuals are a much larger constituency of the LGBT community than many think. But bisexual activists and individuals still often feel their sexual identity isn’t seen as legitimate in our culture, and even experience discrimination within queer communities.
Roughly 3.5 percent of American adults, or 9 million people, identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, according to a study released by the Williams Institute. Bisexuals actually represent a slight majority within the LGB community, representing 1.8 percent of people. The remaining 1.7 percent identify as lesbian or gay—another 700,000 are transgender. Additionally, about 19 million Americans, or 8.2 percent, report participating in same-sex sexual activity, and almost 25.6 million Americans, or 11 percent, admit some same-sex sexual attraction.
“People think I have privilege as a bisexual. I am a cis-gendered, identified-bisexual woman with a cis-gendered-identified husband. So people would say ‘of course you have tons of privilege…you were able to get married legally…you were able to have a child…you don’t have to deal with discrimination,’” Faith said. Cisgender is a term used to describe people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.
But Cheltenham’s experience is contrary to popular assumptions.
The privilege Faith referred to is called monosexual privilege, referring to people who are only attracted to one gender, including heterosexual people, gay men and lesbians.
“If you’re a bi person your relationship status will often indicate to others what your orientation is,” Faith explained. “Your identity being instantly understood by sight is a monosexual privilege.”
Elaine Smith, a student at University of Puget Sound, told Campus Progress “I’ve personally experienced people telling me that they didn’t think bisexuality was a real thing. It is frustrating, in every sense of the word, to be told that your sexual identity isn’t legitimate.”
Even within LGBT networks, Elaine explained that often gay and lesbian allies ostracize bisexuals.
“Having [bisexuality] greeted with skepticism in a group that is commonly on the outside of society itself made me think for a while there that they were right,” she said, “that the emotions and things that I was feeling for men and women weren’t real.”
Denise Penn, director of the American Institute of Bisexuality told Campus Progress she believes the stigma that surrounds bisexuality comes from a lack of education and understanding and is largely based in fear.
“American culture tends to look at things in a very dichotomous way,” Penn said. “Things are either black or white…There is almost a fear of saying ‘maybe you could be kind-of this way.’”
From this lack of education and fear stems deep-rooted negative stereotypes of bisexuality. Penn explained that people often assume bisexuals are “promiscuous, or really confused, or that they’re gay but afraid to come out, that they’re really straight people just playing around and having a good time, and they’ll go back to their real life.”
In comparison to other queer identities, Penn believes that our culture hasn’t made as much progress accepting bisexuality as it has accepting gays and lesbians.
“The LGBT community has worked hard educating and advocating for their rights…what people don’t understand is that some of those activists have been bisexual and many of them haven’t been out,” Penn said. Often when bisexual people do come out, they come out as gay or lesbian first. “There are people who are closeted bisexuals in the gay community…If you want to belong to a group, there are still so many negative connotations of bisexuality, sometimes it’s easier to stay in the gay closet.”
Outside reports support the claim of bisexual discrimination. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that bisexuals have a higher lifetime prevalence of sexual victimization compared to lesbians and gays. Bisexual men are 50 percent more likely to live in poverty than gay men, and bisexual women are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than lesbians.
But even with reports that prove the high discrimination rates of bisexuality, large LGBT advocacy organizations still lack any bisexual-specific projects, outreach, or even any self-identifying bisexual board members—leaving bisexual individuals with little support. And it shows in communities across America.
Scott Clark, a student at University of Puget Sound, told Campus Progress, “I have been called “fake” by both homosexuals and heterosexuals. Some people seem to think that there is no way that a person can be sexually and romantically attracted to both sexes at the same time. Many people—both gay and straight—have questioned my sexuality because of the amount of females that I have had relationships with versus males.”
Madelyn Ray, also a student, has had similar experiences.
“People do not understand how you can be queer if you pass as straight. When you date straight it seems to negate the gayness to some people. It’s a toss up of how people view me. My sexuality is generally ignored and reduced to what’s simplest to understand,” she told Campus Progress. “‘Bisexual’ is a term that I’ve been slowly trying to shed, because I am attracted to people not genders…pansexual might be more accurate, but I don’t like labels.”
All of the students that Campus Progress spoke with requested their real last names not be published for fear of the same discrimination of which they spoke.
Penn, from the American Institute of Bisexuality, explained that bisexual is an umbrella term, and there is some pushback because the word bi means two. But the bisexual community really welcomes people who identify as pansexual and omnisexual and even asexual individuals sometimes feel welcomed in the bi community.
“The biggest benefit of being a bisexual individual is you don’t have to pay attention to ‘gender’ in the slightest bit,” Scott said. “You get to pick people based entirely on what makes them a worthwhile person, and the only thing their sex affects is how you rub your wiggly bits together in the middle of the night.”
Scott believes “as soon as homosexuality becomes accepted by the majority, bisexuality and pansexuality will follow suit.” And one of the biggest components to alleviating bisexual discrimination will be “the dissolution of the idea of ‘binary genders.’ The idea that humanity is separated into two completely separate types of individual based on the type of organs in their pelvic bowl is a little ridiculous.”
Young people often feel an immense pressure to make commitments, and sexual identity follows suit.
“You’re supposed to know what you’re career is going to be, your major…and likewise you’re expected to understand your sexuality,” Penn said. It’s problematic that individuals feel pressured to label their sexuality from such a young age—often before they’ve really been exposed to the diversity of sexual experiences and understanding.
Through all of her work in the bi community Penn has noticed that bisexuals tend to be very introspective and “examine themselves and who they are and what life is about, rather than pushing away certain feelings and thinking ‘this isn’t who I’m supposed to be.’”
“I don’t think that young people have to absolutely understand what their sexuality is. It’s a complicated, interesting, exciting thing to explore,” she said. And when our culture begins to understand sexuality in a more fluid way, Penn continued, it will lead to a more accepting environment.