By Elizabeth A. Clark, M.A.
Although the past two decades have seen an increase in scholarly research about bisexuality, the life experiences of bisexual individuals are still under-researched relative to those of gay men and lesbians. A recent study conducted at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology examined the experiences of bisexual-identified women who are in monogamous relationships. Utilizing a new scale developed by researchers at the University of Florida that measures experiences of anti-bisexual prejudice from both the heterosexual and the gay/lesbian communities, the study explored links between experiences of prejudice, sexual orientation self-disclosure (i.e., “outness”), and symptoms of depression. The study also asked about participants’ experiences of support or positive responses to their bisexual identity. Participants were recruited through the online message boards of groups targeted to bisexuals (including BBWN) and to the LGBTQ community in general, as well as through campus LGBT groups, women’s groups, and Queer or Women’s Studies departments at universities throughout the U.S.
The study, which included 271 respondents, 94 in same-sex relationships and 177 in mixed-sex relationships, yielded a number of interesting findings. Overall, the most commonly-reported experiences of anti-bisexual prejudice were those in which others questioned or denied participants’ bisexuality as a stable, enduring or valid sexual identity. These experiences were reported more frequently than prejudice based on perceptions of sexual irresponsibility or more general rejection and hostility, both from heterosexuals and gay/lesbian individuals, suggesting that outright denial or erasure of their identity may be the most pervasive manifestation of biphobia that bisexual women face.
There was no significant difference between the overall amount of prejudice experienced by participants in samesex (SS) versus opposite-sex (OS) relationships, but SS participants reported certain specific experiences at higher rates than those in opposite-sex (OS) relationships. These included being treated as if their bisexuality was a transition to an exclusive lesbian identity and being suspected of carrying an STD. SS participants also reported more frequent experiences of generalized rejection or hostility from heterosexuals (e.g., “I have been alienated because I am bisexual”) than did the OS group, possibly because their relationship status makes them more visible as a sexual minority, increasing their vulnerability to both homophobia and biphobia from heterosexuals.
Outness also appeared to play a role in experiences of prejudice. Generally, the lowest levels of anti-bisexual prejudice were experienced by low-outness participants, which makes intuitive sense: it is difficult to discriminate based on sexual orientation when that orientation is not disclosed. Interestingly, though, this pattern (lower outness = lower prejudice) only held for participants in same-sex relationships; participants partnered with men perceived about the same amount of prejudice regardless of how “out” they were. This may be because bisexual women in same-sex relationships who do not clearly declare their bisexual identity may be perceived as lesbian, thus escaping some anti-bisexual prejudice from the gay/lesbian community. However, as they become more vocal about asserting a specific bisexual identity, this protective factor may be canceled out as they become subject to biphobia from within the gay/lesbian community.
Experiences of anti-bisexual prejudice were significantly correlated with depression, adding support to other researchers’ claims that the elevated prevalence of depression within the bisexual community may be due to the “double discrimination” of biphobia. Interestingly, outness was also associated with depression: high-outness participants reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms than low- or middle-outness participants. Taken together, the study results highlight the cost-benefit analysis of coming out for bisexuals. Existing research suggests that while coming out may expose sexual minority individuals to increased prejudice, it also facilitates community-building and increases access to social support, resulting in a net benefit to well-being.
Participants in this study reported receiving support for their sexuality from a wide variety of sources, including friends, family members, partners, co-workers, counselors, and members of bisexual support groups. Notably, other bisexual individuals were cited as the most frequent source of truly affirmative, enthusiastic support. While individuals of other sexual orientations (particularly those in close personal relationships with participants) often offered acceptance and support, many participants expressed that only other bisexuals truly understood and celebrated their experience. These results highlight the importance of efforts to increase bisexual visibility within LGBT organizations and to foster a vibrant and active bisexual community.
Although the results of this study are exploratory and require further investigation, the study sheds light on some of the normative experiences of bisexual women involved in monogamous relationships. It is hoped that the results of the study will inform clinicians, activists, and policy makers in their ongoing work with the bisexual community.
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Elizabeth is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Her clinical and research interests focus on gender and sexual identity, particularly bisexual, queer, questioning, fluid, flexible, and other “non-binary” sexualities.