Lani Ka’ahumanu came out as a lesbian in the 1970s after divorcing her husband, the father of her two children. A few years later, she came out again—this time as bisexual.
Ka’ahumanu became a trailblazing activist and went on to help found what would become BiNet USA, the first nationwide organization for bisexual rights. With Loraine Hutchins, she edited the groundbreaking anthology Bi Any Other Name, and she laid the foundation for future generations of bisexuals—like me—to be out and proud members of the LGBTQ community. And she did it all while co-parenting her two children.
So why is it that today, almost 40 years after Ka’ahumanu came out, it’s still so uncommon to hear the words “bisexual” and “parent” in the same sentence?
Being visibly bisexual in a culture that has ingrained biphobia on the deepest level is an ongoing challenge, a boulder we constantly have to roll back up the hill. Doing it while parenting—in the face of pernicious stereotypes about bisexuality that, if true, would make it practically impossible to be a good parent—is pushing the boulder up the hill while wearing roller skates.
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Bisexual activists say that while societal acceptance is still difficult for gay and lesbian parents, their representation far outpaces what bi parents have—we can all name at least a handful of gay and lesbian parents in pop culture, but the only bisexual mom I can think of on TV is Callie from Grey’s Anatomy. Faith Cheltenham, longtime bi activist and former president of BiNet USA, said, “As far as I know, there are no published books for parents like myself to explain their bisexuality to their kids. There are no children’s books for bi kids to learn about being bi.” Indeed, a 2014 article by J. Epstein in the Journal of Bisexuality concluded that “bisexuality is either invisible or negatively portrayed in books for younger readers.”
Amy André, co-author of the National LGBTQ Task Force 2007 report “Bisexual Health,” points out that this represents a huge discrepancy, given that out bisexuals outnumber out gays and lesbians. “The vast majority of parents who aren’t heterosexual are bisexual,” she said. (The Williams Institute estimates that bisexuals make up 64 percent of non-heterosexual parents.) “And yet, think about how many resources there are for gay and lesbian parents—not enough, but certainly more than a few. But, for us bi parents, there is literally nothing, as far as I’ve seen.”
Being underrepresented, even compared to the rest of the perpetually ignored LGBTQ community, is nothing new for bisexuals. In 2011, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission published the report “Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations,” which explored the way that bi people are perceived as gay or straight depending on the gender of our partners, and seldom treated as a distinct community with our own unique concerns and needs. This may contribute to, and certainly doesn’t help to rectify, the fact that bisexual people have been found to experience more sexual violence and intimate partner violence than their straight or gay counterparts, as well as being at greater risk for depression, alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted infections.
But little research exists on how these risk factors affect bisexual people’s experience of parenting. In 2008, GLSEN released a report on the experience of LGBTQ parents in their children’s schools. However, despite making up a majority of LGBTQ parents, bisexuals only represented 5 percent of those surveyed, suggesting that GLSEN was ineffective at making contact with families that included bi parents.
And many bisexual parents are not out even to their children. My friend Kate, a bi woman with a male partner, acknowledges that being assumed straight means that “yes, I am shielded from bigotry in public, and therefore my son is, but at the same time my sexuality is erased.” She isn’t yet ready to discuss her bisexuality with her 6-year-old, for fear that it will make him question the stability of her relationship with her partner.
Kate’s hesitation alludes to stereotypes about bisexuality—that bisexuals are unstable, unreliable, promiscuous, sneaky—that make it so specifically challenging to imagine bisexual parenting. Bisexuality is linked, in the social imagination, to all things lurid and lascivious, a link we’ve been less successful in overcoming than our gay and lesbian contemporaries. While homosexuality used to (and in some subcultures still does) carry an aura of perversity, great strides have been made toward subverting that stigma and replacing it with slogans like “love is love.” But bisexuality, perhaps because it’s harder to sum up in a glowing sunlit photograph of two men or two women kissing in a wedding chapel, has yet to shake off its association with insatiable desire and sexual greed. Media representation doesn’t help much, seldom offering bisexual characters storylines beyond cheating on one partner with another of a different gender.
To acknowledge that bisexuality continues to exist, even in committed relationships, is to acknowledge that loving one person does not preclude the possibility of feeling desire for someone else—a reality that is equally true, but easier to elide, for straight and gay people.
Freelance writer Diana Whitney is out as bisexual to her two daughters, but has yet to talk to them in detail about what that means to her. “They’re at an age when any parental mention of sexuality is embarrassing, so I may wait till they’re both older and more mature,” she said. “Bisexuality does seem more ‘sexual’ than being gay or straight, which makes it harder to talk about with kids.”
“I think being public about being a parent is really important,” said Ka’ahumanu. “People never used to connect those things, being gay or bi and being a parent, but we can have children. We do have children.”
Of course, there are dangers to visibility, especially in today’s climate of increasingly emboldened hostility against LGBTQ people, people of color, Muslims, disabled people, and anyone considered an “other.” Amid rising threats to roll back rights for trans people and same-sex couples, bi visibility may well take a backseat. Cheltenham, who is Black, has experienced more overt racial hatred—verbal, physical, and sexual—since the 2016 election than at any other time in her life. These days, she’s less likely to wear her bi pride flags or rainbow accessories out of the house. “I feel safer when I’m able to decrease the visible number of identifying reasons to target me,” she said. “I cannot remove my Blackness.”
For parents, the tension between visibility and safety is especially challenging to navigate, since any risk to ourselves is also a risk to our children. Most LGBTQ parents grapple with wanting our children to be proud of their families while not wanting them to experience the hardships we’ve gone through to achieve and maintain visibility. We know they will have to make their own compromises throughout their lives, both as the product of LGBTQ families, and with regard to how that background intersects with other facets of their identities. Cheltenham’s child, for instance, is gender nonconforming. “So it’s even more important for our family to keep in mind that not everyone is OK with bi parents, and we’re working on that, just like not everyone celebrates our boy who wears dresses,” she said.
But at the same time, in a political climate that isn’t always affirming to fluidity, to nuance, to ambiguity or plurality, many bisexual parents feel especially well-equipped to create homes where children are free to explore their identities. My friend Otter is a pansexual mom (pansexuality, or attraction to people regardless of gender, is a distinct identity from bisexuality, but is considered part of the bi community). She said she prioritizes teaching her daughter “that people are not static—you don’t reach a point where you settle into a particular way of being and then cease to grow and change.”
André said her preschool-age children don’t understand the word “bisexual” yet, but that she tries to teach them “bisexual values and worldviews,” like that they might grow up to love people of any gender: “A commitment to honoring family diversity is part of my bisexual feminism.”
Kate’s son has dealt with teasing from his classmates for liking princesses and the color pink, but she said it doesn’t faze him, “because I’ve taught him that people like what they like and that’s never bad.”
Ka’ahumanu said that in her experience, for bisexual parents, “there’s not so much rigidity about who your child is going to be.” When her own daughter, after years of participating in LGBTQ events, came out as bisexual—during a public panel on which they were both speaking—she felt proud to have helped create a safe space in which to do so. “There was a community, and she was part of building that community.”
Ka’ahumanu marched with her bisexual daughter and her 10-year-old granddaughter in the Women’s March this past January. To her, there is no tension between her orientation and her role as a parent and grandparent. “I’m out to my granddaughter as bisexual and it was no big deal,” she said. “There was nothing wrong about it, or weird about it. It was just love.”