It's Bisexual Visibility Day in the western hemisphere, which should be cause for celebration and pride. Unfortunately, a new report from the Human Rights Campaign says that bi youth in the United States receive more harassment and less support than their lesbian and gay peers.
The report is based on a study of 10,000 respondents between the ages of 13 and 17. According to the HRC, the study reveals that most youth who identify as bisexual (and other orientations such as "fluid," "heteroflexible," "queer," and "pansexual," and even "omnisexual," which I first discovered in the works of David Feintuch, who wrote queer characters with depth and compassion) find it far more difficult to come out and to access what support and resources are available. In a statement quoted by the HRC, Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Foundation's Children, Youth & Families Program, drew the conclusion the bisexual youth are not being validated by peers or family members.
It hurts deeply when young people are told they are not legitimate, and, unfortunately, that is what many bisexual youth are hearing from their family and friends.
The study further revealed individuals who identified themselves as bisexual or not exclusively heterosexual/homosexual were overwhelmingly female. It details levels of harassment and bullying at much higher levels than lesbian or straight peers. Frankly, this isn't surprising, as often times bisexuality is seen as "proof" of promiscuity, and when applied to women, as "evidence" of "sexual availability." Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, connected the study's findings to the experiences of adult women.
Bisexual teen girls provided troubling descriptions of sexual harassment, an unfortunate early indicator of just how dangerous stereotyping is to our safety. Statistics show that these threats continue for adult bi women, who, during their lifetimes, report alarmingly high rates of rape, physical violence and stalking by an intimate partner.
Too often, bisexuality is seen as some sort of polite way of describing "anyone will do" which minimises agency in choosing sexual partners and confuses orientation with both frequency of attraction and frequency of sexual relations. It's, also, you know, marginalising, shitty, and completely wrong. And these views are not simply held by heterosexual individuals. Too often they come from other members of the LGBT+ community. Too many times I have heard, "oh, you're just confused, you'll settle into one or the other" and "oh come on, just pick a side already" or "you're in denial, you know you're really ——-."
When this comes from the very queer peers or role models bisexual youth desperately need allyship from, how are these results at all surprising? They're not. It seems this probably partially accounts for the inability to learn about resources and access support services, since so many of these services are discovered via word of mouth. Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Bisexual Resource Center, released a statement in response to the report where she pointed out that the support services aren't being accessed by bisexual youth because bisexual youth don't in many cases even know the resources exist.
Those who work with youth know how important it is for their success to have at least one person they can turn to when they are struggling with their lives. This study sadly indicates that bi youth are not accessing support services — in fact, most of them don't even know that there are services available to them.
All in all, the report is thorough and easy to read. It also tries very hard to not fall into the sort of traps the HRC has been known for in the past. One of the issues which I was concerned the report would not address and yet did in a comprehensive manner was transgender bisexual youth. One of the issues that the report made clear is that often bisexual transgender youth face both bi-erasure on the one hand, but also trans-erasure on the other.
The conflation of gender identity with sexuality is a problem for homosexual identified trans youth. "If you like X, why don't you just stay Y?" is a question I've heard more times than I can count, and it appears bisexuality is one more way peers use sexuality to erase transgender experiences. One trans boy mentioned in the report described his experiences of worrying people would ask why he couldn't just be a girl, which is one of the reasons he doesn't want to be open about both his gender identity and his bisexuality.
In addition to the wide range of "other bisexual identities" (which itself is a problematic term, because pansexuality and omnisexuality != bisexuality), the HRC report also mentioned bisexuality in conjunction with "gender-expansive identities." These identities include bisexual youth who did not identify as transgender, but described a gender identity which wasn't presumably cisgender.
The report does not use the word cisgender, which I feel is the one glaring flaw in the report. It does acknowledge heterosexual/straight as a potential category, and some of the respondents to the study identified as such. However, because of this, I found the gender breakdown problematic. I would have to see the study questions to know exactly why this is, but it bothered me that gender was described as male/female/transgender/gender-expansive. Having transgender and gender-expansive as categories makes sense for those who see those labels as identities, but not everyone does.
If I was given a study at the time I first realised my circumstances had a label (I was still a teen at the time, although 19, and not 13-17), out of "male/female/transgender/gender-expansive," I would have chosen female. For many binary individuals, transgender is not some sort third option, but rather a modifier to the other two traditional options. My concern is that bisexual binary trans girls might not have been counted as girls and bisexual binary trans boys might not have been counted as boys by the study, although I can't really tell that by reading the report.
What is clear is that bisexual youth or youth with other sexualities (like omni or pan) are at greater risk than lesbian or gay peers (and at far, far greater risk than straight peers, of course), and that being bisexual and transgender further complicates experiences. The confusion even by lesbian and gay peers and role models over how bisexual or other sexualities actually exist contributes significantly to bi-erasure by insuring that bisexual youth have far less access to supposed "LGBT" resources and support services.
On Bisexual Visibility Day, we find that bisexual youth are pretty damn invisible, and the results are disastrous for their mental and physical health.
Image via Shutterstock.