Why Are People So Afraid of Bisexuals?

I don’t like the term bisexual; I prefer to think of myself as a person of no fixed sexual orientation. It better suits the amorphous world I inhabit.

“How do you identify?” 

“Oh, I’m a PoNFSO.”

Okay; it’s a little unwieldy, and abbreviated, it hardly rolls off the tongue. So, neither fish nor fowl, I content myself with being the bacon in the LGBT sandwich.

I didn’t come of age as a free-spirited bisexual.  I always knew it was what I was, at least from the point at which I knew what the term meant. As a child, I had crushes on both boys and girls. When my best friend in high school lost her virginity, I was beside myself. But how was I to tell her I was in love with her -- especially after I had spent the previous year utterly smitten with a boy?

I remember being very little, maybe four, watching the Ed Sullivan Show, mesmerized by the siren on the screen, Miss Peggy Lee. In my memory, she is wearing a satin evening gown and a feather boa. I’m laying on my belly, looking up at the television. I can still feel the scratchy texture of the fake-braided rug on my elbows as I propped up my head with my arms. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be Peggy Lee, or just wanted to kiss her.

But I was equally magnetized by Frank Sinatra -- the brash insouciance, the jacket slung over the shoulder, the cock of the fedora. I didn’t know whether I wanted to kiss Frank Sinatra, or be Frank Sinatra.

Splitting the difference

When I was 19 or so, I told my mother that I was bisexual. She did what a good Catholic mother should -- the functional equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and singling the la-la song. It was a non-response born of kindness, and she had reason to hope I was just going through a phase. I hadn’t had an encounter with a woman yet; that would have to wait another 23 years. 

For most of my adult life, and across all sectors of my life, I had tried to split the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable. I had wanted to be an actress and a musician, a career path not condoned by the world of the newly-minted middle class from which I sprang. So, I opted to be a writer, thinking this was somehow more respectable.

I was rarely drawn to lovers who fulfilled anybody’s dream of respectability. I liked hippies and artists and working-class men with big brains. I never really saw myself as marriage material, but when the man I was in love with asked me to marry him, I said yes. I didn’t want to lose him.

And somewhere, deep inside me, I Iiked the patina of respectability that came with having a husband. Never mind that I was a lefty writer and he was a hippie carpenter, or that we were penniless, apparently by choice. The operative terms were that I was a wife and he was my husband. I could pretend to be almost normal.

I treated my bisexuality in a similar way, as if my marriage rendered it moot. I figured that if I just didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have to go there. It might have even turned out that way, if my marriage hadn’t busted up.

(Here I’m afraid I must disappoint you, reader; my marriage did not fall apart because of some torrid affair with a woman, on either my or my husband’s part. No, it came apart for the usual reasons that marriages do: disputes over money, career goals and whether to have a child.)

A geographical cure was in order, I thought. I moved from the New York area to Washington, D.C. There, on my new job, I met a handsome young woman who happened to be a lesbian. She was brilliant, a writer, and had great taste in music. I no longer had a reason not to go there, so I went. The sex was as natural as any I'd ever had. I was 42.

Playing lesbian house

At last, my bisexuality was fulfilled. I was a full-fledged member of the LGBT community, right?

Well, a funny thing happened when I told my lover’s friends that I was bisexual.  They looked at me askance. One took me aside to tell me that she didn’t have any patience for straight girls who were “playing lesbian house.”

Time went on, the affair ran its course. But even though I had become a presence in the LGBT community, whenever I identified myself as bi, it seemed I met with resistance. For many of my new friends, it seemed, calling yourself bisexual was just a reluctance to admitting being gay.

I began to believe them. After all, I had no idea who I was anymore. I was as close to being a broken person as you could be and still hold a job. Just about every shred of my former identity was gone. I was no longer a wife and no longer a journalist. (I had given up my career in an attempt to save my marriage.)

Until my affair with the woman I’ll call Willa, I had clung to my Catholic identity, even though I railed against the church in my writings. Now that I was practicing something that the pope called “intrinsically evil,” there didn’t seem to be much point in that. I had even abandoned the Great State of New Jersey, from which I, as a lifelong resident thereof, had derived much yahoo pride. And I was no longer a heterosexual -- not that I ever really was.

I was little more than a quivering exposed nerve, and a nerve knows not what it is, just that it feels things. I was almost grateful to let someone else define me.

So I became a lesbian for a year or two. I bought a fedora.

When I told two of my brothers, each separately, that I was gay, they both seemed skeptical, saying the same thing: “Don’t put a label on yourself.” I told myself they weren’t ready for the truth. When I told an old flame, he replied, “Addie, you’re not a lesbian. You’re a bisexual. Get over it.” It was the truest thing he ever said to me.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that calling yourself bisexual was not some kind of a cop-out; it was, in fact, to claim an identity that no one really wanted. Then I fell into bed with an old friend -- a man -- and had a perfectly wonderful time. Want it or not, that identity was mine.

One from Column A, one from Column B

There’s not much percentage in being an “out” bisexual. Many gay men and lesbians question the legitimacy of that identity, and many straight people either feel profoundly threatened by it, or take too prurient an interest in it. The truth is, bisexuals, by the fact of our existence, screw with everybody’s perception of how sexuality works.

The LGBT community, some years ago, became dangerously invested in proving that gay men and lesbians are born gay and lesbian. That may or may not be true -- no one’s come up with definitive proof either for or against that proposition -- but the political imperative to prove the gay-at-birth theory is defensive, emanating from a conservative frame that implies if you’re not born that way, then what you’re doing with that other consulting adult in your life is wrong.

While it could be argued (and I’m sure someone has data they think proves this) that bisexuals are born that way, the ease with which we choose partners of one or another gender complicates the whole “born gay” narrative. I don’t know if I was born this way, and I really don’t care. It’s who I am; what more do you need?

Nobody seems to know how many of us there are, because nobody can quantify how many actual bisexual people live as heterosexuals, having sex with only members of the opposite sex. A 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 percent of men and 3 percent of women 15–44 years of age had both male and female sexual partners in the 12 months before the survey was taken. But figures among younger people suggested that many people with more adaptable sexual orientations change their behavior as they age, perhaps in order to live more acceptably.

“Among females,” the CDC authors write, “5.8 percent of teens and 4.8 percent of females 20–24 years of age had had both male and female partners in the last 12 months; percentages were lower at ages 25–44. Among men, about 1 percent had had both male and female partners in the last 12 months at each age.”

Some 10 percent of women in the 18-44 age group, said they were attracted “mostly to males”. (A similar question put to men yielded a much smaller percentage: 3.9 percent said they were attracted “mostly” to females.)

These results seem to bear out the idea of the Kinsey scale, in which sexual orientation is seen as a mix of gender attractions in most people. Despite these findings, people tend to wear their sexual orientation like a suit of armor, and that leaves bisexuals largely outside society’s categorical systems.

Straight people, in my experience, tend to regard bisexuals as sexually insatiable wife- and/or husband-stealers, people who need at least one from Column A and one from Column B just to make through the day. However titillating a thought that might be, it just doesn’t work that way. To me, a person’s gender is just another attribute, like the color of his eyes, or the texture of her hair. Sometimes you fall in love, rendering monogamy the likely outcome -- just like regular folks.


Perhaps most disconcerting to both heterosexuals and members of the gay and lesbian communities is the way bisexuals float between worlds. We are society’s shape-shifters. Partnered with a member of the opposite sex, we appear straight. Partnering with a member of our own sex renders us gay, at least in the eyes of the world. We can choose the degree of freedom and oppression we choose to accept. Hence, we are not to be trusted.

I’ve known the perils of gay-bashing and taunting, as I kissed my girlfriend on the street or, in the former case, was just dressed a little too butch while walking through a gay neighborhood being cased by thugs. But I’ve also experienced the pleasure, pain and societal legitimacy of legal marriage. Neither choice was born of any falseness to my sexual orientation.

Nebulous by nature, bisexuals don’t really have much of an organized community of their very own -- at least not one that I’ve stumbled across or am particularly interested in finding. (Unlike transgender people, our survival simply doesn’t depend on knowing others who are just like us.) Consequently, we often partner with straight or gay people, rather than other bisexuals. This is not without its dilemmas.

For a couple of years, I dated a lesbian musician, until such time as we moved our relationship to the platonic plane. Not long afterward, a gorgeous, smart, funny man, also a musician, asked me out.  The only problem was that a member of his band was close to the woman I call my ex-non-girlfriend, and he was unaware of our relationship. So what would ordinarily be a third-date conversation about my peculiar condition became an extremely awkward first-date conversation; I felt the need to give him the back story before he got it from somebody else. He really wanted to be above it all, but he just couldn’t get past it. “You think that’s natural?” he asked me. Two dates later, we were kaput.

Then there was the young man who recently wooed me. I was perplexed why he was pursuing me, some 15 years his senior, until his eyes lit up a bit too lustfully when we discussed my sexual orientation.  (I’m a blogger in the LGBT community, and he had Googled me.) I’m not eager to be anybody’s fetish.

Queering the deal

I’m old enough to remember a time when there was no “B” or “T” listed in the titles of gay and lesbian organizations. There is some irony in the fact that bisexuals and transgender people occupy a similar place in the greater LGBT community, transgender people arguably being the most oppressed of the lot, and bisexuals arguably being the least (depending on who we‘re partnered with).

Although I don’t always feel entirely accepted in the LGBT community, I have been the recipient of great good will there. And so, I will always be “out”.  Any man I may meet who can’t deal with that is just not my man.

When my life fell apart and I took up with Willa, it was the gay and lesbian community that saw me through. Eventually, I took my place in the LGBT arts community, and when I lost my health insurance, got my health care gratis at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, a wonderful organization born of the AIDS crisis. The LGBT community has supported my work as a writer, and I have experienced great generosity from my friends, who largely hail from the community.

Every now and then, I hear some bisexual person grousing that we are kept to the back of the LGBT bus. I just can’t work up the dudgeon; a lot of gay and lesbian people struggled and even died so that I might have the freedom to be true to myself. That’s why, in the end, I prefer to identify as “queer”; that puts us all in the same boat, our identifying characteristic being not who we sleep with or what mix of genitalia and gender identity we possess, but the simple fact that we are not the majority, and face obstacles because of it.

It took a long time, but I’ve learned to be grateful for my bisexuality. Because of it, I like to think I have a more nuanced understanding of gender and sex than do many others. After all, I have both a satin evening gown and a fedora, and I wear them equally well.

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