The cultural definition of bisexual has changed throughout the years, but what has remained a constant is the experience of “identity invalidation” from both lesbian and gay counterparts of the LGBTQ+ community and from straight people. This invalidation can cause increased likelihood of depression and anxiety, so what needs to change? How can a shift in this cultural definition ensure that the mental health of bisexual people is safeguarded?
In the late 2000s it was fairly common at any high school around the country for people to use the term bisexual as a replacement for gay, especially among young gay men. This was in the midst of an embarrassing cultural happening where the word "gay" was being misappropriated for literally anything associated with a negative, a failure, something to be embarrassed about.
All around the UK young people were shouting “that’s so gay!” down hallways and in classrooms. It’s no wonder young gay men were feeling fearful to use a word that had become synonymous with all the things young boys didn’t want to be associated with: weakness, sensitivity, failure, lack of physicality, femininity, individuality.
This harmful cultural definition not only eroded the identities of thousands of young gay men who were terrified to come out, but also the identities of young bisexual people. When a boy, who everyone suspected to be gay, came out as bisexual, it was a widely accepted fact that they were indeed gay, but just didn’t want to admit it.
In a video titled 'Basically I’m Gay' from two years ago, Youtuber Daniel Howell described this very experience in detail.
And so the sexual orientation of bisexuality was diluted, invalidated, denied legitimacy
Similarly, young bisexual women were constantly labelled as “attention seekers”, if they kissed another girl at a party they were immediately deemed more promiscuous and it was usually interpreted as sexual “entertainment” for straight men and boys.
Speaking on the biphobia experienced within the LGBTQ+ community for an article with Refinery29, a bisexual girl named only as Stevie quoted what an ex-girlfriend (who was lesbian) of hers said after their breakup, “…that’s why we don’t go out with bisexuals. You’re too unsure of yourselves and there’s just too much baggage.”
Similarly, Katie Salmon, ex Love Island 2016 contestant was hounded with criticism from those in the Liverpool LGBTQ+ community after her onscreen relationship with Sophie Gradon, which was the shows first same-sex relationship. Katie was quoted three years ago saying many accused her of “doing it for publicity” and that she “felt like they all doubted [that I was bi], were criticising me”.
Katie Salmon added that these comments from the community hurt the most and that the lack of support confused her coming from “my own community who had probably felt those [same] nervous feelings of coming out.”
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What does this biphobia and bi erasure do for the mental health of those coming out as bisexual?
For bisexual women, this denial of their sexual orientation and a large part of their identity runs deep in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly among lesbian women. A 2018 study published by the American Psychological Association titled ‘Bisexual prejudice among lesbian and gay people: Examining the roles of gender and perceived sexual orientation’ found that lesbian women participants in the study were more negative towards bisexuals than gay men, this negativity was then compounded by their specific attitudes towards bisexual women in comparison to gay male’s attitudes towards bisexual men.
The study found that many lesbian women believed bi women were “inauthentic” in their attraction to women
In 2018 the BBC noted a report from the Open University that found rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide are higher among bisexual people than with heterosexual and homosexual groups. These findings also align with a Stonewall study that found 32% of bi people are not “out” or open about their sexual orientation to anyone in their family, compared to the much lower percentage of 8% for lesbian women and gay men.
Lewis Oakley, a bisexual young man living in London spoke to the BBC on the impact of this erasure and denial of his true identity saying that loneliness is a huge factor for bisexual people, and that the attitudes mentioned above lead many to feeling “invisible”, first to the straight people in their life when they might initially attempt to come out, and secondly to people in the LGBTQ+ community when they attempt to come out to them.
This experience has lead some to describe bisexuality as like being in a “double closet”
A psychologist and professor at American University in Washington D.C, Ethan Mereish, coined the term “double closet” to describe the discrimination that bisexual people face from within and beyond the LGBTQ+ community.
This can have serious knock effects where in bisexual people who are possibly more likely to suffer from mental health problems due to this erasure and biphobia, may be less likely to access support from within the community due to their belief that their experience and sexual orientation isn’t valid or might be denied.
Where are there opportunities to unlearn or relearn?
Despite the fact that the number of people reporting to be LGB increases in the UK year on year, positive representation of bisexual people is greatly lacking in popular media. Head of Stonewall Ruth Hunt believes film and TV portrayals have a huge part to play in this tackling of bi erasure and biphobia from within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.
Ms Hunt said to the BBC, “You never see bi characters faithfully and respectfully portrayed on television, at all…When you see someone bi on television it is always a matter of indecision, crisis and conflict.”
We have seen time and time again what positive, empowering and uplifting representation in TV and Film can do for marginalised people. The FX show ‘Pose’ has increased awareness and understanding around the experiences trans Women of Colour to great success, and the UK show ‘It’s a Sin’ by Russel T Davies shed much needed light on a time in gay and lesbian history in the UK in a way never seen before.
To enact sustainable change, it is time to look at this cultural definition of bisexuality once again, to “pass the mic” to bisexual creatives who can tell their stories better than anyone else, to align that definition with the real, joyful, validated and complex experiences that bisexual people have with their sexual orientation.
For support on the issues discussed in this article you can find help and information at the LGBT Foundation, talk to the Switchboard LGBT+ helpline on 0300 330 0630 and use the Stonewall UK 'what's in my area' search tool to discover local support here.