Rick Isenberg, MD, LPC, NCC, CSAT on Apr 07, 2022
I work with a lot of people who identify as bisexual in my practice, and certain themes keep showing up: “People don’t understand me. They think I’m fooling myself. They think I’m indecisive or greedy. I feel alone, erased, and unwanted.” Bisexuality is commonly misunderstood, dismissed, and devalued.
It’s time to talk about BISEXUALITY.
Let’s be clear. Bisexuality is a valid and distinct sexual orientation. It is normal and natural. Robyn Ochs has defined it well: Bisexuality is “the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
Let’s take this apart. People who are bisexual (commonly abbreviated as “bi”) recognize an attraction and capacity to develop relationships with more than one gender. People who are monosexual (such as gay or straight), by contrast, find themselves attracted to only one gender. Bi people are not limited to one gender. While this can be viewed in a strictly binary sense as being attracted to both men and women, it can also mean attraction to the same and other genders, attraction to all genders, and attraction regardless of gender. The concept of gender here is expansive and potentially includes attraction to people who are, for instance, transgender, non-binary, gender queer, gender fluid, and those who do not identify as any gender. A person of any gender identity can be bisexual.
For bi people, the attraction to other genders can be romantic, sexual, or both. For instance, I work with bi clients who are drawn to be sexual with both men and women but would only fall in love with a woman. And other bi clients could see themselves falling in love with anyone regardless of gender and would only consider being sexual with men.
A bisexual person does not have to be equally attracted to each gender that appeals to them. For most bi people, the attraction is usually not exactly 50/50. It is very common for a bi person to prefer people of one gender more than another and for the preference to shift over time. Their attraction may depend on who they are in relationship with.
It is important to recognize that a bisexual person stays bi regardless of the gender of their partner. Thus, a bi man who marries another man does not instantly become gay; nor does a bi woman who marries a man become straight. Bi is a deeply rooted identity, a sense of who one is as a person and, like other sexual identities, does not tend to change over time.
Bisexuality has been around for eons. The term was first coined by Von Krafft-Ebing in 1892. History is full of avowedly bisexual figures including Alexander the Great, Francis Bacon, Casanova, and Eleanor Roosevelt. There have been many bisexual celebrities and entertainers including Billie Holiday, Cary Grant, David Bowie, Angelina Jolie, Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, James Dean, Jason Mraz, Katherine Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. Many literary figures have been bisexual — such as Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, and Walt Whitman. The website bi.org offers biographic sketches of all these people and dozens more.
There are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes about bisexuality. Let’s clear up some of them. Bisexuality is not a phase that people go through on the way to becoming gay. Nor is it a phase one “grows out of.” Being bi does not mean being part straight and part gay; it is not a hybrid sexual orientation — it is a distinct sexual orientation in its own right. Being bi does not mean that one wants to go to bed with everyone or is bound to cheat with someone of another gender. Bi people can be monogamous and faithful to their partners just like people of any other sexual orientation. Being bisexual just means that attraction is not limited to one gender.
Being bi in our society is not easy. Society at large, including the gay and lesbian community, does not see bi people and tends to discount them. Often, bisexual women are assumed to “really be straight,” and bisexual men are assumed to be covering up the fact that they “really are gay.” A bi man who partners with a bi woman is still seen as being in a “straight relationship;” their queerness has been erased in the eyes of society. There is a generalized “bi-phobia” that assumes that exclusive attraction to one gender is more natural and valid and that deviation from that norm just doesn’t happen. All this is an attempt by society to erase bi people, to deny that bisexuality is a legitimate, real, and distinct sexual orientation.
It doesn’t feel good to be erased or considered inauthentic or deceptive. And these are the attitudes and micro-aggressions that bi people face all the time.
While being bi opens up more of humanity for possible attraction and relationship, being bi often makes finding and keeping relationships more difficult. For some women looking for a partner, bi guys are not straight enough. And for some gay men looking for a partner, bi guys are not gay enough. Bi people may cover up their bisexual identity to make themselves more appealing or may deny its existence, burying their bisexual urges and attractions for a long time… but often not forever.
Having a partner who comes out as bisexual later in life may be very threatening to the other partner who fears losing their beloved to someone of another gender. Making such a mixed-orientation marriage work (for instance, one partner straight and the other bi) can be very challenging. This is one of the most common reason bi people and their partners come to see me for help.
Like other groups in the LGBTQ community, people who are bi may face challenges with understanding and accepting themselves, coming out, dating, romance, sex, and relationships. Fortunately, there is an active online bi community, many informational websites, and opportunities for members of the bi community across the world to connect. These are also common reasons why bi people enter into therapy.
Our world is full of remarkable and rich human diversity. The bisexual community is a proud part of this and needs to be better understood and welcomed by all of us. For those who are interested, I have listed some resources and suggested readings below.