Conversations about sexual identity are evolving faster than many ever thought possible, with terms like “demisexual,” “pansexual” and “sexually fluid” increasingly making their way into the mainstream. But one term, "bisexual," has been around for ages, and yet many who claim it say they're still fighting for validation.
It's one of the reasons behind Bi Visibility Day, observed every year on Sept. 23.
First launched in 1999 as a way to raise awareness about bisexuality and to challenge the misconceptions bi people face, it’s since become a day to celebrate bisexual individuals and their intersectionality across all genders, identities and other forms of expression.
According to a recent Gallup, 5.6 percent of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ; among them, a majority — 54.6 percent — identify as bisexual. That includes celebrities such as Ronen Rubinstein, Nico Tortorella, Tinashe, Janelle Monae, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Keiynan Lonsdale, Tyler Blackburn and Alan Cumming.
And still, systemic biases and misconceptions — that bi men are gay men in denial, that bi women only hook up with women to attract straight men, for example — continue to fuel misconceptions about the identity.
Bisexual men, in particular, say they feel the pressures of judgment and invisibility from both straight and LGBTQ people.
“People come out as gay and their parents might not be accepting of it, but very rarely are they like, ‘Gay people don't exist.’ They know a [gay] culture is there,” Zachary Zane, a "bi+" activist (an inclusive term that includes all identities in the bisexual umbrella, such as queer, fluid, pansexual or demisexual) and columnist for Men’s Health, tells Yahoo Life. “With bi people it's like, ‘No this doesn't exist. This isn't real.’” These ideas, he adds, are dangerous, and often keep bisexual men from coming out to their families, their partners and even to themselves.
The truth is that bisexuality exists on a wide spectrum, which is why everyone’s experience is different.
According to the Bisexual Resource Center, bisexuality is an “attraction to more than one gender,” and this attraction could be “physical, romantic, and/or emotional. Additionally, bisexual people “may experience different kinds of attraction to different genders, and their attractions may change over time.”
Because biases have seeped into our culture, Zane says, it's often difficult for bi men to live authentically with their partners. “A majority of straight women will not date a bisexual [man]. That is what the studies show,” he explains. “So you're just like, OK, I can't date women after I come out as bi so instead I'm going to hide this identity. Every single step of the way, it almost seems like there's nothing good about coming out as bi.”
While some research does show that the majority of straight cisgender women will not date a bisexual man, bi stigma is an equal opportunity offender: Another recent study, published by the Journal of Bisexuality, showed that bi women were less likely to be out if they were dating a straight cisgender man — mainly due to fears of being judged.
Further, one small 2018 study of 165 gays and lesbians, published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, suggested that bisexuality is unfairly oriented toward men — with both groups believing that bi people are more sexually attracted to men than they are to women. These male-leaning biases make things even more problematic for those who exist in different areas of the bi spectrum.
“It's about patriarchy,” Robyn Ochs, global bi+ speaker and editor of Bi Women Quarterly, tells Yahoo Life of stigmas against bisexual men. “Ultimately, it boils down to the need to control interactions and human behavior.”
Ochs believes that misogyny is a driving force. “One of the most extreme violations of expected behavior for men is to allow themselves to be treated 'like women,'” she argues, creating a motivation to stay closeted. It's the "convergence of sexism and homophobia and biphobia," she says. "Everything is connected.”
Professional football player Ryan Russell, now an NFL free agent, became the first out bisexual NFL player in 2019. He tells Yahoo Life that “toxic masculinity culture” adds pressure for bisexual men to remain hidden about their true feelings.
“I think for men, it's like you get hit with almost this triple whammy, for lack of a better term,” Russell says. “You’ve been taught at a young age that the most important thing about your male identity is your masculinity. So if you feel a need to protect it, instead of nurturing it or allowing you to experience your femininity or allowing whatever to come to you naturally, you begin curating [masculine ideals] instead of letting genuine creation come from within who you are in your own soul.”
Of the pressure to remain closeted, he adds, “There's obvious homophobia. Historically, for so long gay, queer, LGBTQ, trans, lesbian people have been put down so much, where you're just like, ‘I don't want that. I don't want to take on a struggle.’”
During his coming out journey, Russell says he recognized within his own intersectionalities — a Black, bisexual man in sports — that “resistance and struggle wasn't, one, something I can avoid, and two, [was] something that shouldn’t deter me from being who I am.”
“Growing up as a Black man struggling and facing adversity and facing hate for the way I was born was nothing new to me,” he says. “So I was like, OK, bisexuality is just going to be kind of another fight I'm willing to wage because it's important to me.”
Further expanding the concept of bisexuality is Kate Estrop, board member of the Bisexual Resource Center, who tells Yahoo Life it's important to understand that the modern bisexual identity is not tied to any specific gender, and can encompass nonbinary folks and trans people, as well.
“The big pushback in the past was against the idea that bi folks were not real, or bisexual duality was not real because we could ‘choose’ to be straight. We could choose to be in straight spaces and have that privilege by saying, ‘It’s not a phase. It’s my life,'” Estrop (who uses they/them pronouns) says.
“We're trying to pick through that and say, ‘Well, actually, sometimes you do have phases of sexuality,” they continue. “And sometimes you do have phases of identity. And that doesn't make what you're going through at any particular moment invalid. It's valid if you're feeling it. If you want to identify as that, identify as that. No one else can tell you you're not something. You are valid and your identity is valid.”
In recent years, thanks to a growing bisexual community on social media, bi folks are empowering each other and equipping the world with knowledge — which is helping to debunk myths, says Zane.
“There's a bisexual Tik Tok, a bisexual Instagram, a bisexual Twitter,” he says. “These online spaces have facilitated people feeling comfortable with identity and really helping them come out and find a community and find friends.”
Bisexual Awareness month: Sept.
Bisexual Week: Sept. 16th-23rd
Bisexual Awareness Day: Sept. 23rd
Basically celebrate your bi+ friends and family like crazy. We want it all. Happy #BiWeek 💙💜💖
— R.K. Russell (@RKRelentless) September 16, 2021
Yes, bisexuals have all of September for Bisexual Awareness month. During which we have a a special week, #Biweek which culminates on September 23, for Bisexual Awareness Day, because bisexuals are greedy and want it all. Obvi.
— Zachary Zane (@ZacharyZane_) September 16, 2021
“We've seen so much more visibility,” Zane adds of Gen Z, 15 percent of whom identify as LGBTQ. “I think a lot of it has to do with just hating being put in boxes, whether that is a gender box, a sexuality box, or literally any other box that has to do with identity. They are embracing more aspects of fluidity in all aspects of their life.”
Building an online community has been helpful in counteracting the ways that bi folks “see ourselves represented in media," Estrop notes.
“When we see ourselves as demons, or the bad guy, or when the only bi people on TV are greedy or over-sexualized, it doesn't do good for our egos,” they explain to Yahoo Life. “Because then we're like, ‘Well, is that us? Can we be bi and also a good person? So then we question whether or not we are bi — or can be bi. Should we just hide that part of ourselves and be straight or gay or lesbian, and just pretend like that part of our identity doesn't exist because I don't want to share this identity with a serial killer on TV?”
At the end of the day, Ochs points out, it’s about building “intergenerational humility” in every direction — including within the LGBTQ community — to understand that “not all experiences” are the same, and we have to be OK with that if we want a civilized society.
Russell adds that education on both sides is the first step towards acceptance.
“You can't really be understood or understand anyone else until you do the work, until you empower yourself with knowledge,” he says. “I think one of the things that bisexual people across the board, I think, face is feeling as though we need to defend our sexuality — that maybe have been a hurdle I've had, but also a hurdle that I haven't jumped because I don't do that. Like, I don't feel the need to validate my sexuality for anyone. You ask me a question, I tell you, we move on.”