|Photo: Windy City Times "Bi in the Life" profile, Wendy Bostwick|
If someone asked you the question “How does being bisexual affect your life, day to day?” how would you answer?
This was the question we asked 2 groups of bisexual-identified women as part of a larger study about women’s sexual orientation, their connection to community, and experiences of support and inclusion. What we found was that for these women, being bisexual often meant that they had to contend with hostility toward bisexuality in general, their bisexuality being dismissed, or confusion from others over whether the women could “really” be bisexual. What is more, those who made the comments were often unaware that their statements were hurtful or upsetting to the women. These commonplace, and often unintentional, slights or insults related to a facet of one’s identity are known as “microaggressions”.
In a recent paper, my colleague and I discuss 7 bisexual-specific microaggressions that emerged from our focus groups. Including those mentioned above, which we termed hostility, denial/dismissal, and unintelligibility, we also identified microaggressions related to hypersexuality, dating exclusion, pressure to change, and LGBT legitimacy. Probably the most common microaggression had to do with the women’s place within the larger “LGBT” community. A number of women talked about how they felt a requirement to prove they were “gay enough” to legitimately be a member of a community that, at least in name, included them. Others told of how even at events that were labeled as LGBT, there were unwelcoming, or even hostile comments about bisexuality. Said Chris “I feel like I am you and I am
kicked out of you”.
But doesn’t everybody have to contend with rude or insulting comments, in one way or another, you ask? Absolutely. What is unique about microaggressions, and very much related to what the women in our study had to say, is the way in which they are connected to a fundamental aspect of someone’s identity. In fact, what we noticed about many of these bisexual microaggressions was the way in which a number of them challenged the women as knowers of their own experiences or even of themselves.
When someone denies or dismisses a bisexual woman’s identity, by choosing to refer to her as “straight” or “lesbian”, even in the face of the woman’s own deliberate and clear self-identification as bisexual, that is not just insulting. It also implies that the woman does not truly know herself, or that she cannot be who she says she is. When one is continually met with confusion from others about what bisexuality means, or if it even exists, they may feel compelled to provide definitions, explanations, and “proof” in order to truly be seen, heard, and understood. Returning to the question at hand, for a number of our participants, at the end of the day, being bisexual meant working to make their identity intelligible, and by extension, themselves intelligible.
The findings from this work point to a potential reason why we see such high rates of depression and anxiety among bisexual women. As my previous work shows, bisexual women have some of the highest rates of mood and anxiety disorders in the country, exceeding rates found among heterosexual and lesbian women. We don’t know exactly why this is the case, but perhaps it is related to the unique stressors, like the microaggressions mentioned above, that bisexual women face. Messages questioning the credibility and/or very existence of bisexuality, often prompt work to prove the validity of one’s identity claims. We hypothesize that microaggressions that render bisexual women’s identity claims faulty or, worse, false and inauthentic, burden bisexual women with additional “identity work”. This burden, or stressor, is both cognitively and emotionally taxing, and in turn, likely has negative consequences for mental health and well-being.
Our work is just a start, and there are many more people we need to talk to—bisexual men, racially and ethnically diverse bisexuals, youth, and/or those who are not “out” about their bisexuality. But we hope our recent paper sheds light on the unique and specific experiences of bisexuals, and how such experiences may be connected to mental health and well-being. In turn, we ultimately want to foster a larger culture that is accepting of bisexuals, and that allows us to be who we say we are. Here’s to a bisexual community that is happy, healthy, and flourishing!
Bostwick, W., & Hequembourg, A. (2014). ‘Just a little hint’: bisexual-specific microaggressions and their connection to epistemic injustices. Culture, health & sexuality, (ahead-of-print), 1-16.
Or please contact me directly for a copy of the paper.