Invisible identities: Gay-washing and other bisexual issues

By Managing Editor

When Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, renowned bisexual activist Robyn Ochs and her partner, Peg Preble, were more than ready to take their long-awaited walk down the aisle.

After spending seven years together, the two women were happy to have a legally recognized marriage.

But one problem arose after the ceremony—notable media outlets, including The Washington Post, misidentified Ochs and her partner when headlines referred to their union as a “lesbian wedding.”

The problem lies in the fact that Preble does identify as lesbian, but Ochs identifies as bisexual, which means labeling their wedding a lesbian wedding is inaccurate.  

Despite marriage equality existing in 36 states and the District of Columbia, there are still lingering attitudes and stigmas surrounding bisexuality that erase bisexual people from the larger conversation about LGBTQ issues, causing some bisexual people to keep their status quiet and publicly identify as gay.

A March 10, 2011, report approved by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, titled “Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations,” defines bisexuality as “the capacity for emotional, romantic and/or physical attraction to more than one sex or gender.”

The report further noted: “A bisexual orientation speaks to the potential for, but not requirement of, involvement with more than one sex/gender.”

The report’s extended definition of bisexuality reflects recent acknowledgments that bisexuality—the identity that makes up more than half of the LGBTQ community but which most keep to themselves because of the stigma—is not limited to an attraction to both men and women, but that it can extend to any gender identity.

Ochs has her own definition of bisexuality in relation to how she personally identifies.

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree,” Ochs said.

She pointed out that in recent years, bisexuality has become more understood as a person having attractions to more than one gender— rather than simply stating, “Bisexuals like boys and girls.”

The “Bisexual Invisibility” report defines biphobia as “assuming that romantic couplings of two women are lesbian, or two men are gay, or a man and a woman are heterosexual.”

Ochs attributes the common habit of labeling a person’s sexuality based on the gender of their current partner to binary thinking.

“We tend to think in binaries, and it’s difficult for us to wrap our brains around any identity that isn’t simple, clear and binary,” Ochs said. “I believe part of the reason people have so much difficulty seeing bisexuality and other middle sexuality identities is based in our binary thinking.”

Chris Pierce, volunteer coordinator of bisexual programming at the Center on Halsted, a community center for LGBTQ people in Chicago, and vice president of Bisexual and Queer Alliance of Chicago, a nonprofit that welcomes all orientations and genders, said he remembers when Ochs and Preble’s wedding made headlines.

He said he thinks that the couple’s mislabeled identities were a direct result of biphobia and monosexism.

Pierce also referred to the phrases “gay-washing” and “pink-washing,” which he said occur when a bisexual person does something and then the media coverage on it will either not mention any sexual orientation at all, or the media identifies individuals as gay.

Homophobia has become a commonly understood term in recent years in the U.S., but biphobia is a term less frequently used.

The “Bisexual Invisibility” report defines biphobia as “fear or hatred of bisexuals, sometimes manifesting in discrimination, isolation, harassment or violence.

Often biphobia is based on inaccurate stereotypes, including association with infidelity, promiscuity and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.”

Many U.S. citizens within the heterosexual and LGBTQ communities have let their activism and other work toward achieving equality and acceptance fall by the wayside under the presumption that same-sex marriage being legalized in several states suggests that “the problem has been solved.”

But despite lesbians and gay men seeing increased positivity toward their identities, the “Bisexual Invisibility” report revealed bisexuals were consistently identified as the least “liked” group among heterosexual and LGBTQ people, aside from transgender people, who were at the bottom of the list every time.

The various forms of antagonism and oppression that bisexual people face from the heterosexual and LGBTQ communities are often attributed to other psychological and sociological problems, such as minority stress, horizontal hostility—which occurs when members of a targeted group exhibit hostility toward their own or another minority group—and an overall lack of education and understanding surrounding sexual identity in general, but particularly in the case of bisexual and transgender people.

Ochs said she thinks the best way for bisexual people to address these misunderstandings is for individuals to be as open about their sexualities as they can be while remaining comfortable in their current situations.

“Every time you talk about your complicated identity, you’re allowing other people to be more complicated,” Ochs said. “Every time you speak up and allow yourself to be whole, you’re allowing other people to do the same.”

Wendy Bostwick is an assistant professor of public health and health education programs at Northern Illinois University and the co-author of a study on bisexual-specific microaggres- sions and their connection to injustices, which was released in March 2014.

She said microaggressions directed toward bisexual people are typically more subtle slights, insults and comments that come both from family, friends and partners, but also comments that come from employers, teachers or the media. These microaggressions somehow suggest that bisexuality is just not real, that it’s a joke or that it exists because bisexuals can’t make up their minds.

“There’s this recurring narrative that bisexual people are just confused,” Bostwick said. “The reality is that we are not confused. It’s everyone else around us that’s confused and they project that [confusion] back onto us. There’s a lot of time and energy spent trying to validate our identities, trying to make them seem real, trying to prove ourselves to people, and that takes a toll on someone.”

Despite long-standing stereotypes that bisexuality is “just a phase,” the “Bisexual Invisibility” report also revealed that in a longi- tudinal study of lesbian, bisexual or unlabeled women, “more women adopted bisexual iden- tities than relinquished them” throughout a 10-year timeframe. The longitudinal study also showed that of the total number of women who identified as bisexual at the start of the 10-year period, 92 percent of participants retained the bisexual or unlabeled identity they started with after 10 years.

Bostwick said increased visibility for bisexual people in the media and popular culture is the key to reducing the prevalence of these stereotypes about bisexuality.

While she has reservations about the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” she says it has heightened the visibility of bisexuals.

“That’s a key example of people sort of throwing up their hands and being like ‘Look! This main character is clearly bisexual, how about we say the word?’” Bostwick said.

While she said there are problems with the series on many levels, Bostwick said it is still helpful overall that shows like “Orange is the New Black” are prompting a dialogue about different sexualities.

“It’s about visibility and it’s about people being out to the extent that they feel safe,” Bostwick said. “There are issues of safety for bi people, even within the context of their own relationships.”

Tyler Fortman, staff psychologist at the Center on Halsted, said visibility is also important because American culture has developed a strong sexual binary that overlooks middle sexualities.

“We seem to pretend that a binary exists, when in fact we know that it doesn’t come anywhere close to existing,” Fortman said. “Sexuality is much more fluid than fitting into these heterosexual or homosexual boxes.”

When people feel targeted or stigmatized, Fortman said he hopes such people would be less likely to target other groups, but there is often a seeking of safety and power that can lead to stigmatizing or outright violence against other stigmatized groups.

Instances of hostility from LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals can increase the prevalence of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress among bisexual people, according to the “Bisexual Invisibility” report. In a national population based survey, the report found that more than 45 percent of bisexual women and about 35 percent of bisexual men had suicidal thoughts, compared to only 30 percent of lesbian women and 25 percent of gay men. The largest disparity in the survey showed only about 10 percent of straight women and 7 percent of straight men experienced suicidality compared to bisexual people.

Victoria Shannon was an English teacher for 20 years before serendipitously becoming Columbia’s LGBTQ coordinator and creating the college’s first “Gay & Lesbian Studies I” courses, which she has now been teaching for more than 13 years. Shannon said she has many students in her classes who identify as bisexual. 

“They feel rejected, ignored, some of them even are treated badly because of who they are,” she said. “As we do make these advances in LGBT rights, we’re going to need to focus on the ‘B’ and the ‘T,’ because a trans- gender person is murdered in this country at least once a month and bisexuals are subject to a lot of abuse because people don’t understand.”

Shannon said she has long been working to encourage her colleagues to touch on LGBTQ issues in their various courses across all disciplines because LGBTQ students and allies need to know that they have a place in history and other aspects of the nation’s culture as well.

“I can’t tell you how many times students break down in tears in my classes,” Shannon said. “It always disconcerts me, but it happens, because we hit on a subject that is a personal issue for them.”

Shannon said the main thing that is needed to effectively combat biphobia in schools and in society in general is to make a concerted effort to educate people.

“People say, ‘Oh, no, bi today, gay tomorrow,’ [but that’s] just not true,” she said. “The situation becomes even worse with other non-binary sexual identities, such as pansexuals and asexuals. Education is key.”