Sunday, April 06, 2014

Guest Blog: Wendy Bostwick on the unique microaggressions bi people face




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!

Wendy Bostwick

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.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:17 PM

    nice work, Wendy!! -Bianca

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  2. Thank you for writing this article.
    Are you planning to write a more detailed article about those micro agressions?
    In my opinion, there are two important points that could be mentioned.
    One is the sexualization of bisexual women. Some people ask bisexual women personal questions about their sexual preferences and sexual activity. Some men pressure their bisexual girlfriends or wives into having a threesome with another woman. And some people think that bisexual women are more "open minded" about different sexual practices. Some also think that bisexual women are "easy".
    The second point is the idea that bisexuals have a choice, that they can just choose to date people of the "opposite sex".

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  3. Hi Ines-

    Thanks for your comment. The link at the end of the blog piece takes you to the full paper but if it doesn't work, please just email me and I am happy to send you a copy. At any rate, yes, I plan to delve deeper into these microaggressions, as I think there's many more inflections to them than what we were able to capture with our small sample.

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I live in East Texas, where there is still an old-timey stigma on LGBT lifestyles and an acceptance by a majority here of prejudice and discrimination. I don't want to be straight. I'm bi. I don't want to be a lesbian. I'm bi. I think there is an assumption that if you're bi you're non-monogamous, and that's a challenge for some. I'm non-monogamous. That doesn't fly well with lesbians who are monogamous, which is, of its subset, the prevalent lifestyle.

    It seems to me that the greater the prevalence of prejudice against any group in an area, the more likely someone is of using it against another person. As an example. If a lesbian in East Texas has been discriminated against or been the victim of prejudice in some other way because of her sexuality, she may be more likely to (even subconsciously) have a prejudice against a bi woman because there is a difference in sexuality.

    I am curious about the issue with bi women and depression. I am frequently depressed. I'd say it comes and goes. It seems that highly empathic people are more often depressed. I am curious as to whether there is a different level of sympathy or empathy in bi people that makes them less likely to have an absolute preference for one gender over another. Perhaps this has something to do with the depression issue.

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