What does it mean to be bisexual?
Bisexuality is defined by many as a sexual orientation defined by romantic, emotional, and/or sexual attraction toward people of more than one sex or gender. People who identify as bisexual have a wide range of experiences related to this attraction. Because bisexuality is an orientation, it encompasses feelings and identity, not just sexual behavior. A person’s sexual orientation does not change based on the gender of the person they are dating; a bisexual woman dating another woman, for example, does not “become” gay or lesbian, but is still bisexual.
Many people who are attracted to both sexes or genders choose to use words other than bisexual to describe themselves, including but not limited to pansexual, queer, omnisexual, and fluid. All of these terms have in common an attraction to multiple genders.
Activist Robyn Ochs defines bisexuality as “the potential to be attracted to people regardless of their gender.” She expands on this definition, defining bisexuality as the “potential to be attracted, romantically and/or sexually, to people of more than one sex, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
Bisexual people may place emphasis on attraction to either sex or gender, as the two are not the same. Sex refers to biological differences, usually chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs. One’s gender often refers to one’s internal sense of being either male or female, as well as characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.
Bisexual Resource Center, “Bisexuality 101“
MONASH University, “What is the difference between sex and gender?“
Michael McLeish, “Bisexual VS Pansexual” (2015)
Robyn Ochs, “The Bisexual Movement” (2000)
What are some stereotypes about bisexual people? What is biphobia?
Bisexual people face a number of false stereotypes and misunderstanding from those who do not identify as bisexual.
Harmful and false stereotypes around bisexual people include:
* an inability to remain committed or monogamous
* an inability to be satisfied unless one is with both male and female partners simultaneously
In addition, bisexuality is often misunderstood as a phase or a confused state, with the expectation that a bisexual person will come out as “truly” gay or straight at a later point. Bisexual people are often told to “choose one” gender.
None of these stereotypes against bisexual people are statistically accurate. Bisexual people are not by definition confused, promiscuous, or non-monogamous, nor do they require multiple partners. They simply have the capability of being with an individual from a range of sexes and genders. The perpetuation of the above stereotypes is called biphobia — an aversion toward bisexuality and bisexual people, based on negative stereotypes or irrational fear.
Sadly, these stereotypes are held against bisexual people by both straight people and by the gay and lesbian community. Some gay/lesbian people are also resentful of a bisexual person’s ability to “pass” as straight if they are with a partner of a different gender. Although bisexuality has been included in the common LGBT initialism since the 1990s, misunderstandings and stereotypes about bisexuality still persist in the LGBTQ community.
Janet Edwards, The Christian Century, “Bisexual in the church” (2014)
What is monosexism?
Biphobia persists in both straight and gay/lesbian communities in large part because of monosexism. Both straight and gay/lesbian people experience monosexuality — a sexual orientation towards only one gender. It can be difficult for straight and gay/lesbian people to imagine the capacity to be attracted to more than one gender. This can perpetuate the belief that everyone experiences sexual orientation in the same way. The belief that sexual orientation can only be towards one gender is called monosexism.
The experience of sexual orientation on a spectrum, rather than as only towards one gender, has been documented since at least 1948 with the publication of the Kinsey Reports. Alfred Kinsey and his partners focused on sexual behaviors, and observed that a large number of people experience their sexual attraction and desire along a scale, numbered as follows:
Although behavioral and scientific observation has documented the existence of bisexuality for more than fifty years, biphobia and monosexism persist. Where monosexism exists (in both straight and gay/lesbian communities), bisexuality is treated as an impossibility, and it is reduced to a period of confusion or phase of coming out rather than a legitimate sexual orientation.
What is bi-erasure?
Attempts to invalidate the bisexual label and community is called bi-erasure. Some of these attempts are intentional and rooted in explicit biphobia. Other instances of bi-erasure are unintentional. In either case, situations where bisexuality is disregarded are damaging to those who identify as bisexual.
Bi-erasure can look like:
* expecting any bisexual person to “come out” as “actually” straight or gay/lesbian
* assuming when a bisexual person has a partner, the bisexual person is now gay or straight and no longer bisexual
* using the adjective “gay” for “same-gender”, as in “gay marriage”
along with a multitude of other instances.
Sadly, in some cases when bisexuality is actually recognized and celebrated, it is shown in a hyper sexualized and fetishized manner. Much “bisexual” representation in media and culture is actually manufactured for a voyeuristic straight male audience — generally, with straight-identifying women having physical or sexual contact with another woman (as in pornography). Treating bisexuality as an event meant for observation rather than a legitimate sexual orientation perpetuates harmful stereotypes and reduces an individual’s identity to only their sexual history. Sexual orientation is defined as encompassing more than one’s sexual history or current sexual attractions. It is also about an individual’s mental, emotional, physical, and romantic desires.
The continued existence of bi-phobia, monosexism, and bi-erasure has a devastating effect on the mental health of those who identify as bisexual. Bisexual people are four times more likely to commit suicide than lesbian and gay adults. Bisexual women are also at a greater risk of depression and anxiety. Due to stigma attached to the label, many bisexual people are not out and are not honest with their health care providers, decreasing their chances of receiving appropriate help.
Bisexuality should not be reduced to sexual behavior, but instead fully embraced as a queer identity.
Eliel Cruz, Religion News Service, “How the church perpetuates the ‘gay lifestyle’” (2015)
National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation (2010)
What is bi-visibility?
Bi-visibility is marked by efforts to increase awareness and acceptance of bisexuality as a sexual orientation. Bi-visibility can be undertaken by bisexual individuals, bisexual communities, and allies who are not bisexual.
It is crucial that the LGBTQ community and the church fully recognize the existence of bisexuality. Acceptance makes it easier for bisexual individuals to accept themselves and live life as their authentic selves. Churches and other faith communities can move beyond simple tolerance to acceptance and affirmation by fully embracing bisexual individuals as members of their congregation.
Creating bisexual visibility in the church is dependent, in part, on creating a more inviting environment for all queer identities. Not everyone may understand bisexuality or the many identities within the LGBTQ spectrum, but we may begin by listening to the stories of queer people (including those who identify as bisexual) and being attentive to our own bi-phobia, monosexism, and bi-erasure.
Danielle Dowd, “Bisexual Issues in Pastoral Counseling” (2017)
Elizabeth Rawlings, “What it means to be bisexual in the world and in the church (and what LGBTQ equality means to me)” (2015)
Eliel Cruz, “Bi the Way: 7 Tips to be Inclusive of Bisexuals in Christianity” (2014)