Commentary LGBTQ

We Know Biphobia Is Harmful. But Do We Know What’s Behind It?

Heron Greenesmith

Bisexual people experience discrimination from gay and straight people alike, and researchers have trouble pinpointing why.

In early April, the LGBTQ publication Queerty ran a piece called “Why does bisexuality still make us so uncomfortable?” in which the author, Jeremy Helligar, describes the moment that a date told him he was bisexual.

“I told him it didn’t matter to me, but I lied,” Helligar writes, explaining that the stereotype of bisexuals having “more options” made him nervous.

Although Helligar says he’s not the type to “side-eye” bisexual people and that he accepts them “in theory,” he is, in reality, reproducing biphobic rhetoric that many bisexuals hear on a nearly daily basis.

Biphobia (the fear and dislike of bisexual people and others who have the potential to be attracted to more than one gender) has been studied for decades. Used by bisexual activists since the 1970s, the term was brought into prominence in 1992 by the researcher Kathleen Bennett, who talked about the “denigration of bisexuality as a valid life choice.” In 2002, Patrick Mulick and Lester Wright developed the “Biphobia Scale,” a set of thirty questions which they used to measure negativity towards bisexual people. Mulick and Wright were the first researchers to confirm that bisexual people experienced “double discrimination”: that is, negative behavior based on their sexual orientation from gay and lesbian people as well as from straight people.

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Almost two-thirds of bisexual respondents to one 2015 survey reported hearing biphobic jokes at work. In another survey the same year, nearly half of bisexual respondents reported facing biphobia from their doctors. Biphobia impacts bisexuals’ health and earning power. And biphobia can have more dangerous effects on bisexuals’ lives: Among multiple factors analyzed by Marywood University professor of psychology Susan Turell and her colleagues, “bi-negativity” was the greatest predictor of whether a person was likely to be abusive to their bisexual intimate partner.

In early April, the Daily Beast shared a powerful profile of Dr. Brian Dodge, a researcher on bisexuality and biphobia at Indiana University. Dr. Dodge’s work with the Bisexualities: Indiana Attitudes Scale (BIAS) has revealed the depth and breadth of biphobia expressed by gay, lesbian, and straight people across the United States. In 2016, Dr. Dodge and his team found that while modern attitudes towards gay and lesbian people have undergone a marked positive shift, overall attitudes of gay, lesbian, and straight people toward bisexual people have merely shifted from “very negative to neutral” over the past decade. Attitudes towards bisexual men remained lower than towards bisexual women.

Also in 2016, Dr. Tangela Roberts and others asked more than 700 bisexual people about their experiences of discrimination in various contexts. They found that while bisexual participants reported higher quantities of discrimination from heterosexual people compared to gay and lesbian people, the relative impact of the discrimination was the same from both groups, negatively affecting how the bisexual respondents viewed their own internal bisexual identities.

While these studies shed important light on the extent of biphobia faced by bisexual people, they don’t really examine why biphobia is so prevalent among lesbian, gay, and straight people. In fact, it is very difficult to research causality—there are often many competing and compounding factors that lead to discrimination, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly which factors are most indicative.

In March, the Journal of Sex Research published a study that tested participants’ assumptions about hypothetical straight, lesbian, and bisexual women and found that bisexual women were viewed as more confused, promiscuous, and neurotic than straight and lesbian women. Alon Zivony, the author of the study, theorized that “bisexual stereotypes seem to be deduced based on the idea that men and women are opposites: if one holds two opposing attractions, then it stand to reason that this person will be confused.”

Late last year, Nicole Johnson and MaryBeth Grove published a paper looking into possible causes for the intensely high rates of sexual violence that bisexual women face. (Nearly half of all bisexual women have experienced rape and three-quarters of bisexual women have experienced sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Johnson and Grove hypothesize that hypersexualization of bisexual women, plus biphobic harassment and bisexual women’s greater likelihood of substance use, may compound to increase the probability of sexual assault.

The authors do not, however, address the complex correlation between sexual violence and substance use and abuse: it is clear that substance use does not cause sexual violence, and in fact substance use and abuse may be indicative of trauma from sexual violence and other traumas associated with biphobia.

Recent research on the attitudes of college students towards bisexual and transgender people found that students who were afraid of ambiguity—who preferred to see things in black and white—were also more likely to express biphobia and transphobia. And queer theory supports this finding: Bisexuality doesn’t immediately answer the question of “who will this person be attracted to,” which may frustrate people used to making assumptions based on sexual orientation.

“People fear what they can’t wrap their heads around and the idea of being capable of being attracted to more than one type of person rejects everything we’ve been taught about how love, sex, attraction, and the human brain work,” Denarii Grace, a singer-songwriter, poet, and activist told me in an interview.

The author of the original Queerty article pinned his own biphobia to his jealousy over his date’s past partners: “I don’t see [bisexuality] as a layover on the way to straight (for women) or gay (for men), as I’ve heard some people describe it. The B in LGBTQ is as legitimate as any of the letters surrounding it. But if I’m being completely honest, a certain green-eyed monster was controlling my innermost thoughts. I hated myself even more for being swayed by the stereotype that bisexual people are sluttier than the rest of us because they have more options.”

In six sentences, the author hit several major stereotypes of bisexuality, common themes in the biphobia that bisexual people hear every day. The author closes with “I don’t know if I’ll ever be as comfortable with B as I am with G, but in this brave new LGBTQ world of sexual fluidity, maybe there’s still hope for me.”

But given the impacts of biphobia on bisexual people, it’s clear that it is we bisexual people who need hope.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify when the term “biphobia” came into use.

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