What Does It Mean to Be Bisexual? Here's What Experts Want You to Know
Bisexuality, the B in LGBTQ+, is a sexual identity with a lot of misconceptions around it. Not everyone even believes it's a true orientation; it's been described as a temporary phase before a person comes out as lesbian or gay, for example. But bisexuality is a real identity, and those who identify as bi are a little tired of being misunderstood. Here's what bisexuality means, and why it's important for everyone to recognize and understand it.
What is bisexuality?
Simply put, "bisexual” and “bi” are umbrella terms for people who “recognize and honor their potential for sexual and emotional attraction to more than one gender,” according to The nonprofit Bisexual Resource Center (BRC), the oldest nationally focused bisexual organization in the US.
People may experience these attractions in different ways and degrees during their life, and bisexual people don’t need to have had specific sexual experiences (or, for that matter, any sexual experiences at all) to identify as bisexual, according to the LGBTQ+ organization GLAAD.
It’s just as important to know what bisexuality isn’t
“There is this misconception that bisexual people have to have a partner of each gender to be satisfied, implying that they are more likely to be sexually active or unfaithful, even though many bisexual people are happily and faithfully monogamous,” Jo Eckler, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of I Can't Fix You—Because You're Not Broken, tells Health.
Another misconception about bisexuality is that a person can’t really know they’re bisexual unless they’ve been intimate with a man and a woman, Eckler says.
Bisexuality isn’t limited to the binary genders of male and female. “Bisexual people are attracted to people of the same and of other gender(s), including transgender people,” Eckler says. Ultimately, bisexual people have the capacity to love and be attracted to people of all genders.
“Our society is still very binary in regard to gender and sexual orientation––so much of those definitions are based on what you don't like or what you are not,” Eckler says. “If someone has a binary attraction and worldview, it can be difficult for them to imagine and trust how someone could be attracted to more genders because that’s a nonbinary way of experiencing the world.”
Unfortunately, biphobia, along with a lack of accurate and positive representations of bisexual people in the media, feeds continued misconceptions about bisexuality.
What challenges do bisexual people face?
Misconceptions aside, people who identify as bisexual can experience what’s known as “bisexual erasure,” Kristen Martinez, an LGBTQ+ affirmative counselor at Pacific NorthWell in Seattle, tells Health. “They get read as straight with a partner of another gender, and read as gay or lesbian when they are with a partner of the same gender,” explains Martinez.
Some people who don’t identify as bisexual assume that bisexuality is “just a phase,” Martinez says. “Male-identified bisexuals, in particular, may experience the uncomfortable intersection of homophobia from potential female-identified partners, while female-identified bisexuals may tend to be hypersexualized due to cultural forces of sexism and misogyny."
Additionally, bisexual people may not feel completely accepted into the larger LGBTQ+ community, which can lead to isolation and a lack of support. “Conversations about LGBTQ+ rights sometimes gloss over the letter B, not mentioning the needs of the bisexual community,” Eckler says. “Bisexual people who are in monogamous relationships with someone of another gender, such as a woman married to a man, are sometimes viewed as ‘not really bisexual’ or ‘not really LGBTQIA.’”
Bisexual people are often pressured by people of all sexual orientations to “pick a side” and just admit that they are actually gay, lesbian, or straight, Eckler adds. And it doesn’t help that when bisexual people are represented in media, it's often based on stereotypes. “People in straight and gay/lesbian communities can feel that bisexual people aren’t trustworthy and thus won’t consider dating them,” she says.
Why is it important to understand bisexuality?
In order to accept and understand sexuality as a spectrum and not a binary, it’s imperative that society understands and affirms bisexuality.
“The more we lift up and validate identities such as bisexuality, the safer people feel identifying with these terms, and the more space we each have as individuals in a culture where more nuanced views of sexuality and sexual and romantic orientation are held,” Martinez says.