What is Bi-Erasure and Why We Should Care
They’re just confused. They’re gay or lesbian, and this is a transitional phase until they fully come out. They’re just experimenting. They just need to pick a side. They’re actually straight, but they just want attention or to seem more interesting. They’re just greedy, or desperate, or selfish, or a slut. It’s not even a real thing.
Being bisexual can feel like being invisible. People can assume you’re straight or gay. You can feel unwelcome at pride events, especially if you’re with a different-gendered partner. You may even feel like a fraud, and like you don’t belong in any community, especially if you’ve only been in heterosexual passing relationships.
This is bisexual erasure, and it is a pervasive problem in which the existence or legitimacy of bisexuality (either at a societal or interpersonal level) is questioned or denied outright. It is a form of biphobia, which is prejudice, fear, or hatred directed toward bisexual people. It not only occurs on an individual level, but also in political, legal, medical, and resource realms. And the consequences of this are huge, and worth discussing.
What is bisexuality?
According to the Human Rights Campaign, “a bisexual person is someone who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity, though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree”. Bisexuality can refer to identity, attraction, or sexual behaviour – or all three. The terms ‘bi’, ‘bisexual’, and ‘bi+’ are all used in this sense.
A prevailing myth is that bisexuality is a new fad, but the reality is far from this. Bisexuality can be traced all the way back to ancient times. The first written record of the word itself was in the 1700s. Bisexuality is not new.
Nor is it rare. Recent estimates suggest that somewhere between 1 and 2% of Australians identify primarily as bisexual, however when people are asked about attraction rather than how they identify, the number of people who experience bisexual feelings is typically between 6% and 13%. It can be difficult to know the actual statistics of bisexuality, largely due to bi-erasure. A 2018 Triple J survey found that while 83% of gay men and 86% of lesbian women have come out, less than half of bisexual people have done the same. This may be due to the many pervasive myths about bisexuality that contribute to bi-erasure and biphobia.
Debunking myths about bisexuality
Bisexual people magically become straight when they’re in a relationship with a heterosexual partner
Your relationship status does not change your sexuality. Bisexual actor Evan Rachel Wood said “bisexuality doesn’t mean halfway between gay or straight. It is its own identity”. While some people like to point out the fact that bisexual people are likely to end up in a relationship with someone of a different gender, this is because biphobia and invisibility shrink the dating pool. Bisexual people can experience both biphobia and homophobia, with gay men and lesbians often expressing suspicion about a person’s bisexuality. The 2018 Triple J survey found that shockingly, nearly half of the 60,000 respondents (of all sexualities) said they would not date a bisexual person.
Bisexual people are transphobic
While the historical definition of bisexual suggested a gender binary which excluded trans and non-binary people, this is no longer the case since the expansion of gender identity became more visible. As mentioned above, bisexuality refers to anyone attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity. Additionally, over 25% of trans people identify as bisexual.
Bi men don’t exist, and are probably just gay
In a recent study, 1% of Australian men identified as bisexual. Societal biphobia and toxic masculinity have led to serious consequences for bisexual men who are too ashamed to seek out healthcare. A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found bisexual men are disproportionately affected by HIV and are at higher risk of contracting other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) simply because bi-erasure and biphobia make them less likely to receive appropriate medical care.
Bisexual people are more likely to cheat on a partner
Imagine you are attracted to brunettes and blondes. You fall in love and begin a committed relationship with a brunette. This does not mean that you will cheat with a blonde. Sure, some bisexual people do cheat, but this has everything to do with who they are as a person, and nothing to do with their sexual identity. Bisexual people aren’t more likely to cheat than anyone else.
Bisexual people are polyamorous
This myth arises in part because queer and bisexual identities are often fetishised, particularly by heterosexual men who believe ‘bisexuality’ equates to ‘threesome’. Bisexuality means a person is attracted to more than one sex, gender, or gender identity. Polyamory means that a person choses to maintain a romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time. Anyone of any sexual identity can choose to be polyamorous, bisexual people are not more prone to polyamory simply because of their identity.
Bisexual people are just bisexual so they have more dating options
As already discussed, the reality is that due to bi-erasure and biphobia, the dating pool for bisexual people is smaller.
Bisexual people face less harmful stigma than lesbian or gay people
Bisexual people face minority stress. Bi-invisibility and bi-erasure mean bisexual people feel like outsiders across all communities, face the above myths, and are deterred from seeking the support they need which adversely impacts their physical and mental health.
Physical and mental health consequences of bi-erasure
An October 2021 Australian report by LGBTIQ+ Health Australia reported that there are differences between the mental health and wellbeing of gay and lesbian people, and bisexual people. Specifically, bisexual people are more likely to be diagnosed and treated for mental disorder and have higher levels of psychological distress than gay, lesbian, or heterosexual people.
A 2017 study published in The Journal of Sex Research showed that bisexual people have higher rates of anxiety and depression than straight, lesbian, or gay people. Similarly, a different recent study found that 37.3% of bisexual adults reported experiencing depression, compared to 17.2% of heterosexual adults. The 2021 LGBTIQ+ Health Australia report stated that 50.6% of bisexual women and 34.1% of bisexual men aged 16 and over reported having been diagnosed or treated for any mental disorder in the past three years.
There are also differences between the mental health and wellbeing of bisexual men and bisexual women. Specifically, bisexual women are more likely to be diagnosed or treated for a mental disorder, to have higher levels of psychological distress, and to self-harm, whereas bisexual men are more likely to think about suicide. However, bisexual women and bisexual men have similar rates of suicide attempts.
Bisexual people have increased risks of self-harming behaviours and attempted suicide than gay, lesbian, or heterosexual adults. 27.8% of bisexual people aged 18 and over in Australia reported that they had attempted suicide and are more than six times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than the general population. 77.6% of bisexual people aged 18 and over reported having thoughts of suicide in their lifetime.
The Human Rights Campaign reported that bisexual people also face poorer physical health outcomes. Compared to heterosexual people, bisexual people are more likely to have high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, and gastrointestinal issues, and are also more likely to smoke or drink alcohol. Bisexual women also have higher rates of heart disease and obesity compared to straight women. The disparities are even more layered for transgender people and people of colour who identify as bisexual, because they potentially have to navigate transphobia and/or racism as well.
Some of these disparities that bisexual individuals face may stem from a lack of preventative care. According to the American Cancer Society, bisexual women receive routine health care, including breast, colorectal, and cervical cancer screening tests, less frequently than other women. As GLAAD puts it: “bisexual erasure plays a critical role in reducing the community’s visibility and, in turn, reducing access to the resources and support opportunities bisexual people so desperately need”.
One reason for this lack of access to the proper level or type of care might be because sexual identity isn’t a topic that a health care provider brings up. And it might be a topic that patients don’t feel comfortable bringing up themselves. According to the Human Rights Campaign, research has shown that 39% of bisexual men and 33% of bisexual women don’t disclose their sexual identity to any health care provider. That’s significantly more than the 13% of gay men and 10% of lesbians who don’t disclose their sexual identity to health care providers.
My boyfriend left the room when the nurse came in to do my examination after we learned we were pregnant. She looks at me and says in a sly voice “I guess we can cross the ‘bisexual’ off your chart, can’t we?” – A bisexual cis woman’s experience.
Often health care providers will assume heterosexuality, especially if the client is in attendance with a differently gendered partner. Even if a bisexual person isn’t explicitly asked about their sexual orientation and they feel it’s relevant to bring it up, many are apprehensive to do so due to pervasive negative myths and assumptions.
But the adverse outcomes don’t end there. Bisexual people are at higher risk of experiencing any form of intimate partner violence compared to other sexualities. They are at greater risk of experiencing structural level disadvantages such as poverty. The quality of life of bisexual women is lower than both lesbian and heterosexual women. Much of this is due to the critical role bi-erasure plays in reducing access to the resources and support opportunities bisexual people so desperately need.
How to end bi-erasure
Increased visibility is key to reducing bi-erasure and biphobia, particularly in the public sphere. As more celebrities like Lady Gaga, Dove Cameron, Willow Smith, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Alan Cumming (to name just a few!) come out as bisexual, bisexual visibility is increased and goes some way to addressing the myths that perpetuate bi-erasure.
Supporting bisexual community organisations can also help promote bisexual visibility and end bisexual erasure. If you’re already involved in LGBTIQIAP+ Brotherboy, Sistergirl allyship or advocacy, make sure that you include the bisexual community and bisexual people in your work.
Other things you can do to be an ally for the bisexual community includes avoiding stereotyping bisexual people, calling out others when they make biphobic statements, and using inclusive language when talking about the LGBTIQAP+ Brotherboy, Sistergirl community.
Written by Melissa Wyllie, Psychologist at Haven Psychology