By Robyn Ochs
Bisexualities and disabilities are identities that carry negative stigma in the United States (and beyond). They are misunderstood, maligned, and are “labels of primary potency” (Allport, 1986), identities which are seen to be of such significance that they overshadow our other identities and are thus assigned disproportionate importance.
I see parallels between the experience of having an invisible disability—one that is not immediately apparent—and holding a bisexual identity:
- Because the default assumptions of U.S. culture are that everyone is both heterosexual and able-bodied, every time you meet a new person you can be fairly certain that they will make false assumptions about you.
- You can’t tell by looking who else shares your identity, so it is likely that you feel isolated and more uncommon than you actually are.
- It is probable that other members of your immediate family do not share your identity, so it is likely that you have not had in-family role models or received ongoing guidance and support from someone who shares your identity in how to navigate your identity through the world.
- In order to be seen, you have to come out through some sort of declaration.
- You may spend considerable interior time deliberating on the potential costs of coming out. (If I disclose my identity, will people devalue me or see me only as that identity [see labels of primary potency, above]? Will it cost me personally, academically, or professionally?)
- And you may spend considerable time deliberating on how to come out. (“Oh, by the way, speaking of bisexuality, which we weren’t, that’s how I identify!” “Oh, did I mention I have a learning disability?”)
- If we are silent, we know that we are not seen, and we may feel we guilty for dissembling or covering, even though it is, in fact, those around us who are making false assumptions about us. When silent, we may feel that we are doing a disservice to all those in our identity group.
- If we do speak up, we are aware that there is so much ignorance and misinformation about our identities that to be fully understood, we must do more than simply share a label or diagnosis. We must also explain and educate.
More broadly, bisexuality and disability are both identities whose meanings and boundaries are disputed. What degree and what types of disabilities entitle one to claim the label “disabled”? What degree and what experience of bisexuality entitle one to claim bisexual (or pansexual or queer) identity? Who is “really disabled”? Who is a “true bisexual”? We may find our claims to our own identities disputed, and we may also doubt our own right to claim identity.
Robyn is an international speaker, educator, and editor of two bi+ anthologies and of this publication.