Understanding the bisexual mental health paradox through a (feminist) identity journey

Photo by Hailey Zimmerman on Unsplash

Bisexual+ (bi+) people have double the rate of depression as heterosexuals and are more likely to experience mental health conditions than gay men or lesbians. 40 percent of bi+ youth have considered or attempted suicide (compared to 30 percent of gay and lesbian and 12% of heterosexual youth). Only five percent of bi+ youth consider themselves “very happy”. This is only a small selection of concerning statistics about bi+ people’s mental health, especially considering that they are even worse for people with intersecting identities such as bi+ and transgender or bi+ Black or Brown. So why are bi+ people so unhealthy and unhappy?

You may have a mental image of a bi+ person as this liberated, free-spirited individual, enjoying their infinite romantic options and surely having a great sex life. The reality is that, for a long time, being bi+ feels confusing, and then exhausting and often emotionally lonely. And yes, we have sex with women and men, but no, for most people that does not mean at the same time.

Let me walk you through my bi+ identity journey to show you what double discrimination from both heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities means in our daily lives, how identifying as bi+ challenged my understanding and expression of feminism and why, in many ways, it was harder for me to embrace my bi+ identity than my previous lesbian one.

As you may have gathered by now, I absolutely hate telling (straight) people that I’m bi+. Every single time, mentioning my sexuality prompts the question when I discovered that I was attracted to women — implying that I was straight and then had some momentous, life-changing experience with a women that made me realize that I’m in fact also a little bit gay. This is followed by genuine surprise and slight embarrassment about their own ignorance when I clarify that I actually initially identified as lesbian and had exclusively lesbian experiences for five years before even kissing a man. This unfortunate conversation is a consequence of many straight people’s heteronormative assumptions that makes them think of bi+ as some kinky variation of their own love and sex lives.

The truth is that you don’t wake up one day with a revelation about your sexuality. You intrinsically know from the start. You may not be ready to understand and embrace it at the time, but deep down you know. Bi+ is not “just a phase”, it’s a fundamentally queer identity. And my journey to understanding and acceptance illustrates some of the wide range of issues that bi+ people face.

I had a textbook gay teenage experience: growing up in a small, homogenous, traditionalist town meant being surrounded by implicit and explicit homophobic views. Add to that, a dysfunctional family environment riddled with substantial mental health issues, including my own mental health struggles amplified by the prejudicial nature of my parental home. All that meant that there was no way that I could have handled being “out”.

Despite that, later on, it was almost harder to embrace my bi+ than my previous lesbian identity. Despite my fear of coming out, in some way being lesbian also meant solace. It gave me a clear identity and it felt coherent with my burgeoning interest in feminist thought. Even if it was a secret to most people, I knew who I was — and that’s what mattered most. For me, as probably for many others growing up with challenging and patriarchal family dynamics, this sense of self was extremely meaningful, because I didn’t (and still don’t) derive identity from the place where I grew up or indeed my family itself. My “home” is too tainted with emotionally difficult memories. Instead being lesbian gave me a sense of belonging and pride in my obvious defiance of rigid, patriarchal expectations of gender roles and sexual identities. Bi+ with all its socially constructed uncertainties (“you are not really gay, are you?”) threw my hard-fought, clear concept of self and belonging up in the air.

Another major challenge in my journey towards embracing my bi+ identity was about my vulnerability to body insecurity. Dating men, especially straight men, meant exposing myself to their perceived and real scrutiny of my personal interpretation of femininity. Similarly, it can be difficult for bi+ men to navigate heteronormative concepts of masculinity, for example when being open about previous same-sex relationships. I am not the typically feminine body type: I am lanky, too tall and not curvy enough for the standard femme look. Dressing more androgynously made me feel comfortable, because clothes fitted me as they should, whereas the more feminine women’s range is often tailored for curves that I do not have. This was the early 2000s and still far away from the level of mainstream visibility of diverse queer identities and styles that has emerged over the last two decades. Nowadays, on most days, my style is more femme, ironically inviting scepticism of my “gayness” from some (again mostly straight) people.

Bi+ people share with other diverse identities the burden of explaining our life experience to people who, often well-meaningly, think they understand it by default. It’s a daily choice between dedicating intellectual and emotional effort to trying to explain the nuance that they are missing and staying silent about the stereotypes you are confronted with.

For bi+ people, the second option, silence, can be especially lonely. Our difference is not necessarily obvious. Often this can be a real blessing; sometimes it’s a false one. Especially those of us who are in opposite-sex relationships can disappear in perceived mainstream societal conformity on days when we don’t feel up to facing other people’s misconceptions. I emphasize deeply with other minorities who can’t so easily escape from being constantly stereotyped and profiled. However, for bi+ people, this escape can also be a curse, because people make heteronormative assumptions and regularly deny the validity of our identity, because they can’t “see” our difference.

So what can you, as an ally, do for Bisexual Health Awareness Month? There is a lot, but for the sake of brevity, three key points seem particularly worth mentioning:

(1) First up is starting with a holistic understanding of what bi+ means. I have consistently used the “bi+” terminology and the little “plus” matters. “Bi+” is an umbrella term for anyone who experiences emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to more than one sex or gender, independently of the labels they use. Bi+ includes pansexual, fluid and other queer identities.

(2) It’s not ok to project your sexual fantasies on bi+ people. Our sexuality is not your fetish, nor are other identities. Using someone’s sexuality, gender identity, race, disability, …, as an indication of their choices, preferences or practices with regard to sex is not acceptable. With whom, how, when, where, if we have sex is an individual choice and is not predetermined by the way we look or identify. I know that I’m fortunate in only having to deal with the light end of the spectrum of stereotyping in this space.

(3) We need systemic change away from assuming heterosexuality as the default. Especially in areas such as health care, both physical and mental health, defaulting to straight means that bi+ people do not receive adequate care and support.

This Bisexual Health Awareness Month’s theme is resilience. But resilience does not mean walking alone. So even with the Coronavirus pandemic dominating the news, for what’s left of March and beyond, let’s also talk about bi+ mental health.

More resources on bi+ identities and mental health issues are available from the Bisexual Resource Center and the Human Right Campaign, among other support organizations.

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