THE SCIENTIFIC QUEST TO PROVE BISEXUALITY EXISTS
How a new breed of activists is using science to prove there's something real between straight & gay.
New York Times Magazine
By Benoit Denizet-Lewis
March 20, 2014
The traffic was bad, even by the warped standards of a Southern California commute. We were headed south from Los Angeles to San Diego on an overcast morning last spring, but we hadn’t moved in 10 minutes.
I was sandwiched in the back seat of the car between John Sylla and Denise Penn, two board members of the Los Angeles-based American Institute of Bisexuality (A.I.B.), a deep-pocketed group partly responsible for a surge of academic and scientific research across the country about bisexuality. We were on our way to an A.I.B. board meeting, where members would decide which studies to fund and also brainstorm ways to increase bisexual visibility “in a world that still isn’t convinced that bisexuality — particularly male bisexuality — exists,” as Allen Rosenthal, a sex researcher at Northwestern University, told me.
When someone suggested that we try another route, Sylla, A.I.B.’s friendly and unassuming 55-year-old president, opened the maps app on his iPhone. I met Sylla the previous day at A.I.B. headquarters, a modest two-room office on the first floor of a quiet courtyard in West Hollywood that’s also home to film-production companies and a therapist’s office. Tall and pale, with an easy smile, Sylla offered me books from A.I.B.’s bisexual-themed bookshelf and marveled at the unlikelihood of his bisexual activism. “For the longest time, I didn’t even realize I was bi,” Sylla said. “When I did, I assumed I’d probably just live a supposedly straight life in the suburbs somewhere.”
In the back seat, Sylla lifted his eyes from his phone and suggested an alternate course. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “We could go either way, really,” he told us. He smiled at me. “Get it? Either way?”
“This is what happens when you’re stuck in a car with bisexual activists,” said Brad S. Kane, who was behind the wheel. “More bisexual-themed puns and plays on words than any human should have to endure.”
A lawyer in his late 40s, Kane likes to call himself A.I.B.’s “token gay board member.” Though he had a relationship with a woman almost 20 years ago (and recently met a “French actress and rocker” to whom he was attracted), he’s primarily interested in men. “Everyone in A.I.B. seems to think I’m a closet bisexual,” he said, “but there are a host of emotional reasons why I choose to identify as gay. For one thing, it simplifies my life. To come out as bisexual now would be like starting over in some way. My mom and dad would fall over. It was hard enough to convince them that I was gay.”
I asked him why a man who identifies as gay was involved with A.I.B.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said, recalling the time he represented a heterosexual woman in a case against gay neighbors who were trying to have her dog put down. “People would say, ‘You’re gay — why aren’t you helping the gay couple?’ I’d say, ‘Because I always side with the underdog.’ The poor dog was in animal prison at animal control, with nobody to advocate for it. The dog needed help, needed a voice.” He paused and caught my eye in the rearview mirror. “You’re probably wondering where this is going and whether I’ll shut up anytime soon.”
“I know I am,” said Ian Lawrence, a slender and youthful 40-year-old A.I.B. board member in the passenger seat.
“Well, bisexual people are kind of like that dog,” Kane said. “They’re misunderstood. They’re ignored. They’re mocked. Even within the gay community, I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t date a bisexual.’ Or, ‘Bisexuals aren’t real.’ There’s this idea, especially among gay men, that guys who say they’re bisexual are lying, on their way to being gay, or just kind of unserious and unfocused.”
Lawrence, who struggled in college to understand and accept his bisexuality, nodded and recalled a date he went on with a gay television personality. When Lawrence said that he was bisexual, the man looked at him with a pained face and muttered: “Oh, I wish you’d told me that before. I thought this was a real date.”
Hoping to offer bisexuals a supportive community in 2010, Lawrence became the head organizer for amBi, a bisexual social group in Los Angeles. “All kinds of people show up to our events,” he told me. “There are older bi folks, kids who say they ‘don’t need any labels,’ transgender people — because many trans people also identify as bi. At our events, people can be themselves. They can be out.”
“Though most bisexuals don’t come out,” Sylla said. “Most bisexuals are in convenient opposite-sex relationships and aren’t open about their sexual orientation. Why would you be open, when there is so much biphobia?”
Spend any time hanging around bisexual activists, and you’ll hear a great deal about biphobia. You’ll also hear about bi erasure, the idea that bisexuality is systematically minimized and dismissed. This is especially vexing to bisexual activists, who point to a 2011 report by the Williams Institute — a policy center specializing in L.G.B.T. demographics — that reviewed 11 surveys and found that “among adults who identify as L.G.B., bisexuals comprise a slight majority.” In one of the larger surveys reviewed by the institute (a 2009 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine), 3.1 percent of American adults identified as bisexual, while 2.5 percent identified as gay or lesbian. (In most surveys, the institute found that women were “substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual.”)
Then there’s the tricky matter of identity versus behavior. Joe Kort, a Michigan-based sex therapist whose next book is about straight-identified men who are married but who also have sex with men, says that “many never tell anyone about their bisexual experiences, for fear of losing relationships or having their reputation hurt. Consequently, they’re an invisible group of men. We know very little about them.”
Bisexuals are so unlikely to be out about their orientation — in a 2013 Pew Research Survey, only 28 percent of people who identified as bisexual said they were open about it — that the San Francisco Human Rights Commission recently called them “an invisible majority” in need of resources and support.
But in the eyes of many Americans, bisexuality — despite occasional and exaggerated media reports of its chicness — remains a bewildering and potentially invented orientation favored by men in denial about their homosexuality and by women who will inevitably settle down with men. Studies have found that straight-identified people have more negative attitudes about bisexuals (especially bisexual men) than they do about gays and lesbians, but A.I.B.’s board members insist that some of the worst discrimination and minimization comes from the gay community.
“It’s exhausting trying to keep up with all the ignorance that people spew about bisexuality,” Lawrence told me.
A.I.B., which was founded in 1998 by Fritz Klein, who was a wealthy bisexual psychiatrist, is countering that “ignorance” with a nearly $17 million endowment and a belief in the persuasive value of academic and scientific research. In the last few years, A.I.B. has supported the work of about 40 researchers, including those looking at bisexual behavior and mental health; sexual-arousal patterns of bisexual men; bisexual youth; and “mostly straight” men.
“We’re making great progress where there was little hard science,” said Sylla, who insisted that research “now completely validates that bisexual people exist.” A.I.B., he added, has moved on to more nuanced questions: “Can we see differences in the brains of bisexual people using f.M.R.I. technology? How many bisexual people are there — regardless of how they identify — and what range of relationships and life experiences do they have? And how can we help non-bi people understand and better accept bi people?”
That last goal might be the most difficult to achieve. As we piled out of the car, I told them about an episode of the HBO show “Girls,” in which a young male character remarked that bisexuals were one of two groups — the other was Germans — that “you can still make fun of.”
“As you can see,” Sylla told me, “we have some work to do.”
The first order of business at A.I.B.’s board meeting was a Skype session with Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who has managed to irritate a remarkably wide swath of the L.G.B.T. community.
Some of Bailey’s most vocal critics are bisexual activists, who were angered by a 2005 study he co-wrote titled “Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men.” Bailey had long believed that women were more “bisexually oriented” than men. A 2004 study he did with Meredith Chivers (an associate professor of psychology at Queens University) showed that it didn’t matter so much whether a woman identified as straight or lesbian; most showed genital arousal to both male and female pornography. Men, in contrast, were more “bipolar,” as Bailey put it. Their arousal patterns tended to match their professed sexual orientation. If they said they were gay, usually they were aroused by male erotica; if they said they were heterosexual, female erotica turned them on.
But when Bailey and others tested self-described gay, straight and bisexual men the following year, they found one group — bisexuals — for whom identity and arousal didn’t appear to match. Though the men claimed to be turned on by men and women, in the lab their bodies told a different story. “Most bisexual men appeared homosexual in their genital arousal . . .” the authors wrote. “Male bisexuality appears primarily to represent a style of interpreting or reporting sexual arousal rather than a distinct pattern of . . . sexual arousal.”
The New York Times summarized the study’s findings with a headline that read: “Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited.” “It was so disheartening,” recalled Ellyn Ruthstrom, the president of the Bisexual Resource Center in Boston. “It was this terrible moment where we all wondered, Do we really have to keep debating whether bisexuality exists? It fed into so many of the stereotypes that people believe about bisexuality — that bisexual people are lying to ourselves or to others, that we’re confused, that we can’t be trusted.”
While some bisexual activists filled Bailey’s email inbox with hate mail, Sylla invited Bailey to dinner. “I wanted to work with Mike and help him design a better study,” Sylla told me. “What I said to him early on was: ‘Of course there are bisexual men. You just haven’t found them yet.’ ” Bailey said he was skeptical, but he was impressed with Sylla’s civility and decided to hear him out. That turned out to be a smart decision: A few years later, A.I.B. became an important source of funding for research on bisexuals. Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who receives A.I.B. support, told me, “It’s difficult to get funding to study sexual orientation for its own sake, unless you’re linking it to mental or physical health issues like H.I.V. or suicidality.”
At A.I.B.’s suggestion, Bailey did a second study in which he used more stringent criteria to find bisexual-identified test subjects. Instead of advertising in an alternative newspaper and gay magazines, Bailey’s team recruited men who placed online ads seeking sex with both members of a mixed-gender couple. The men also needed to have had romantic relationships with both men and women.
To Bailey’s surprise, the new study — published in 2011 and called “Sexual Arousal Patterns of Bisexual Men Revisited” — found that the bisexual men did in fact demonstrate “bisexual patterns of both subjective and genital arousal.” Their arousal pattern matched their professed orientation, and A.I.B., which had been criticized by some bisexual activists for working with Bailey, was vindicated.
On the day I attended the group’s board meeting in San Diego, Bailey was seeking funding for new research. But before he could outline it for the board, someone in the room joked, “You’re not going to do one of those demonstrations, are you?” It was a reference to a controversial session of Bailey’s 2011 Human Sexuality class at Northwestern, during which a female guest speaker was brought to orgasm by her male partner using a sex toy.
Bailey, who seemed like he didn’t hear the joke, went into an explanation of his proposed study, which I was surprised to hear wouldn’t include any actual bisexuals. Instead, he planned to test the arousal patterns of 60 gay-identified men.
“We’re interested in the role that sexual inhibition can play in people’s sexuality, in ways that might be relevant to sexual identity or capacity,” he began. “There’s evidence from prior studies that if you start with a stimulus that might turn on a gay guy — say, two guys [being sexual] — and then add a woman to the scene, some gay men are going to be inhibited by that and feel less aroused, while others won’t see their arousal decrease. A subset of bisexual-identified men might be explained by that.”
“How so?” I asked.
Carlos Legaspy, an A.I.B. board member from Chicago, tried to clarify: “There’s some indication that what makes a bisexual person may be less about what they’re strongly attracted to and more about what they’re not averse to.”
“So,” I said, “the hypothesis is that some gay guys think they’re bisexual because they’re not turned off by the idea of being with women?”
Bailey nodded and went on to say that he would be testing two different groups of gay men: half who said they wouldn’t lose their arousal if a woman was in a pornographic scene with two men, and half who said they would.
“Is there any concern of an effect of a twosome versus a threesome?” Sylla asked aloud. “Some guys might be turned on or off by a particular threesome scenario.”
“I don’t think we would have a problem adding a stimulus of an all-male threesome (as a comparison), which should take care of that,” Bailey said.
Though Sylla often told me that he “believes in academic freedom and scientific study” and that A.I.B. “doesn’t put its thumb on the scale,” he makes no apologies for seeking input into the design of A.I.B.-supported studies. Some of the group’s board members, for example, had previously expressed concern to Bailey and other researchers about the quality of the pornography they were using to test bisexual arousal.
“They used videos where the women looked cracked out, had long press-on nails and seemed miserable,” Lawrence told me. “The idea that you could accurately judge someone’s bisexuality by showing them that kind of porn was really astonishing to me. If you do love and respect women, that kind of porn should repel you.”
Baily and other A.I.B.-supported researchers insisted that while they welcomed A.I.B.’s input, the group’s funding didn’t impact their results. “Not only do I not compromise science for money,” Bailey said, “but I don’t really care whether my results upset people. The number of different identity groups that have disliked my findings should be proof of that.”
On the day before A.I.B.’s board meeting, I joined Sylla and a young bisexual writer and actor named Joe Filippone outside Book Soup, a bookstore in West Hollywood. We were standing in a long line for a chance to meet the music mogul Clive Davis, who had recently declared that “to call me anything other than bisexual would be inaccurate.” Maybe “meet” is too strong a word; we were waiting with everyone else for Davis to sign a copy of his book, “The Soundtrack of My Life.”
Sylla brought a “goody bag” to the signing for Davis — inside were A.I.B.-affiliated books and literature, as well as pens, wristbands and lollipops emblazoned with “bisexual” and “bisexual.org” (A.I.B.’s website). “It’s great anytime someone can be honest about who they are,” Sylla said, smiling in the late afternoon sun. “But Clive Davis coming out as bi is big news.”
Though a number of famous women have said they’re bisexual (including Drew Barrymore, Anna Paquin, Megan Fox and Azealia Banks), few big-name men have followed suit. And because Davis was 80, it would be difficult for skeptics to dismiss his declaration as one of a confused young man who would surely grow out of his bisexual phase, as the gay writer Andrew Sullivan suggested months later about the 19-year-old British diver Tom Daley. Daley had said in a YouTube video that he was happily dating a man but was still interested in women.
Sullivan predicted that Daley would “never have a sexual relationship with a woman again, because his assertion that he still fancies girls is a classic bridging mechanism to ease the transition to his real sexual identity. I know this because I did it, too.”
Sullivan’s logic is particularly frustrating to Sylla and other bisexual activists. Though they agree that many gay men use bisexuality as a transition identity — sometimes as a way to soften the blow of coming out to parents — “gay men seem to have a hard time fathoming that someone might have an honestly different trajectory,” Sylla said. (Gay men aren’t the only ones. In an episode of “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw dates a bi guy and suspects that he’s just on “a layover on the way to Gaytown.”)
Bisexual activists told me that much of what gay and lesbian people believe about bisexuality is wrong and is skewed by a self-reinforcing problem: because of biphobia, many bisexuals don’t come out. But until more bisexuals come out, the stereotypes and misinformation at the heart of biphobia won’t be seriously challenged. “The only ‘bisexual’ people that many gays and lesbians know are the ones who ended up gay,” a bisexual woman in Columbus, Ohio, told me. When she tells her gay and lesbian friends about studies showing that bisexuals outnumber them, “they look at me funny and say, ‘That’s strange, because I don’t know any bisexual people.’ ”
But biphobia doesn’t tell the whole story of bisexual invisibility. According to the 2013 Pew Research Survey of L.G.B.T.-identified Americans, bisexuals are less likely than gays and lesbians “to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.” That feeds into a belief among some gays and lesbians that bisexuals are essentially fence-sitters who can pass for straight for decades at a time and aren’t especially invested in the L.G.B.T. community.
Gay distrust of bisexuals has a long history: The first officially recognized gay organization, the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago in 1924, tried to exclude them. In the 1990s, groups like BiNet USA (a national bisexual advocacy organization) began successfully lobbying reluctant gay groups to add the “B” to their names, even as bisexual men were blamed for spreading H.I.V. to women. In 1992, a gay journal spoke for many in the gay and lesbian community when it wrote skeptically about bisexuals under the headline, “What Do Bisexuals Want?”
Recently, I jokingly asked a bisexual friend of mine, Earnie Gardner, what he “wanted.” He said he hoped the gay and lesbian community would “step up and support bisexual people.” But then he added something else. “I really wish everyone could experience how extraordinary it is to be able to fall in love with people regardless of their gender,” he said. “I once told a straight friend who couldn’t really understand my bisexuality: ‘Hey, just because you’re incapable of finding the beauty in both genders, don’t hold your deficiencies against me. You have a handicap, I don’t.’ But, somehow, I’m seen as the strange one, the one who doesn’t fit into our obsession with everything being black or white, straight or gay.”
Gardner could think of only one place where there’s an upside to broadcasting a bisexual identity — gay chat rooms and online hookup sites. “It’s really the only place where you’ll get a medal for being bi,” he said. “Being bisexual, or claiming to be bisexual, has currency there, probably because bi guys are often perceived as being more ‘masculine’ than gay guys. Gay guys don’t usually want to have a relationship with a bi guy, but they sure want to have sex with him.”
Bisexual women also struggle to find lesbians willing to date them — or even to take them seriously. The bisexual activist and speaker Robyn Ochs told me that when she realized in college that she was bisexual, she hoped to be honest about that with the lesbians on her campus. “But it didn’t feel safe for me to do that,” she said. “They said that bisexuals couldn’t be trusted, that they would inevitably leave you for a man. Had I come out as lesbian, I could have been welcomed with open arms, taken to parties, invited to join the softball team. The lesbian red carpet, if you will. But for me to say I was a lesbian would have required that I dismiss all of my previous attractions to men as some sort of false consciousness. So I didn’t come out.”
That lack of support and community likely has health implications. Brian Dodge, a leading researcher on bisexuality and health at Indiana University, Bloomington, guest-edited a special health issue of the Journal of Bisexuality (an A.I.B.-supported quarterly publication). He found that compared with their exclusively homosexual and heterosexual counterparts, bisexuals have reported higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, victimization by violence, suicidal ideation and sexual-health concerns. Dodge blames many of those problems on the stigma and discrimination that bisexuals face. “Put simply,” he said, “it’s not easy to be bisexual.”
As the line outside Book Soup slowly inched forward, Sylla quizzed Filippone on his sexual history. “How would you rank your amount of sexual curiosity?” Sylla wanted to know. A.I.B. had recently funded a study looking into the connection between bisexuality and sexual curiosity, and Sylla had taken to asking every bisexual person he met whether they felt unusually curious.
“At this point there isn’t much I haven’t tried,” Filippone said with a laugh, “so I don’t have much to be curious about anymore.” He added that he identifies as polyamorous. “When I’m with men, I want to be with women. When I’m with women, I want to be with men. Eventually I just stopped trying to choose and started seeing both at the same time.”
Sylla said that he’s content with his male partner of 17 years. “At my age, you know . . .” he said, his voice trailing off. He finished his thought a few beats later. “Researcher Lisa Diamond heard a great quote that fits perfectly for many bisexuals I know: ‘I can drive a blue car, or I can drive a red car. But I have a one-car garage.’ ”
In college, Sylla happily dated women but also had two secretive relationships with men. He never had “emotionless sex,” he said, and the sex of the person he was interested in was less important than his romantic and intellectual connection to them. Still, he didn’t see himself as bisexual. “I really didn’t think about my sexual identity back then,” he told me.
At 30, Sylla married a woman. When that ended four years later (in addition to normal marital stressors, his ex-wife worried about his previous same-sex experiences), Sylla attended an English-speaking men’s support group in Paris, where he lived at the time. “We all started talking about our identities,” Sylla recalled. “One guy said, ‘Well, I’m gay.’ Another said he was straight. When it came to me, I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m bisexual.’ If I looked back at my behavior and relationships, the label fit. It was a deductive process.”
He ended up in a three-year relationship with the gay man from that group, and in 1994 they moved together to Los Angeles. When that relationship fizzled, Sylla said he had “pretty much decided to go back to women” but hoped to find a female partner who would understand bisexual men. He visited the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in search of resources and “a bisexual community,” but he found neither. Before leaving, Sylla picked up a copy of a local gay newspaper with an article by Mike Szymanski, a bisexual writer and activist, who would go on to co-write the book “The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe.”
“I would like to get involved in the bisexual movement, and I would like to meet you,” Sylla wrote in a letter to Szymanski, who had just ended a relationship with a woman. Sylla and Szymanski have been together ever since.
Sylla joined A.I.B.’s board in 1999, working closely with the group’s founder, Fritz Klein. A tall, gentle man with a booming voice, Klein lived modestly despite his wealth and seemed singularly focused on educating the world about bisexuality and promoting healthy relationships among bisexuals. “It is the quality of loving, not the gender of love’s objects, that should come under fire,” he wrote.
When Klein died in 2006, Sylla told me, he left a sizable portion of his fortune to the organization he founded. “He wanted the work to continue,” Sylla said as we approached the table where Clive Davis was signing books. Davis wore a dark suit and was flanked on either side by a bodyguard and a store employee, neither of whom seemed keen on letting us chitchat with the music mogul — or even hand him the gift bag. “I’ll make sure Mr. Davis gets that,” the store employee said, plucking it from Sylla’s hands.
Not one to get easily flustered, Sylla smiled and politely asked Davis, “Could you please make out the inscription to A.I.B.?”
“A.I.B.?” Davis replied.
“Yes, the American Institute of Bisexuality.”
Davis chuckled and flashed Sylla a smile.
Last May, I traveled to Cornell University to meet Ritch Savin-Williams and Gerulf Rieger, two psychologists using A.I.B. funding to study bisexual identity and behavior.
They had just completed the study that explored the link between bisexuality and sexual curiosity. Rieger told me that researchers know very little about the connection between personality and sexual orientation, and he found that bisexual men have higher levels of sexual curiosity (defined as being interested in things like watching other people have sex or participating in orgies) than straight or gay men. The study also showed that an especially high level of sexual curiosity might explain why some bisexual-identified men show arousal to both men and women in a lab, while others don’t.
To test male arousal, Rieger and Savin-Williams use a pupil-dilation tracker instead of a genital monitor. The degree of pupil dilation has been found to correspond to self-reported sexual attraction and orientation, and Rieger, who used to work in Bailey’s lab at Northwestern, said that it can be more accurate in some ways than a genital measure. (Savin-Williams told me that when he volunteered in the 1970s for an early pupil-dilation study of sexual orientation at the University of Chicago, he was “scared to death, because I knew it was telling the truth about my sexuality.”)
Rieger suggested that I try out the eye-tracker for myself. I had already visited Bailey’s lab at Northwestern, where Allen Rosenthal used a “penile-strain gauge” (which measures the changing circumference of the penis) to assess my arousal and ran me through a test similar to the one he administered to bisexual men in 2011. I was curious whether the process would accurately reflect my professed orientation. I identify as gay, but I’ve long considered myself a 5 on the Kinsey scale, which was developed in the 1940s and measures sexuality on a continuum from zero (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). Though I had sexual experiences with women in college that I enjoyed, my primary sexual and romantic interest has always been in men. I figured that as a Kinsey 5, though, I might show some arousal to the all-female videos. I certainly didn’t consider myself “averse” to female sexuality. (Alfred Kinsey, himself bisexual, found that many people were between 1 and 5 on his scale and argued that “males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.”)
In the sparse testing room at Northwestern, I undressed and sat on a vinyl armchair covered with a disposable sheet. Through an intercom, Rosenthal assured me that he couldn’t see into the room; he would instead be monitoring my arousal in real time by looking at a line on his computer screen. I was instructed to move as little as possible once I applied the gauge, lest the line start to look “spiky like a polygraph.”
Thirty minutes later, after I watched scenes involving men, women or both, I exited the testing room eager to hear my results.
“So, how gay am I?” I asked Rosenthal.
“Pretty gay,” he said with a laugh, adding that my genital response was “typical for a homosexual man.” He said I showed practically no arousal to the lesbian scenes, though I was turned on by a video involving men and women, especially when the men interacted. Still, I was much less averse to women than another gay man who took the test after me — according to the line on Rosenthal’s computer screen, that man didn’t experience arousal when a woman joined the men.
At Cornell, my eyes told a different story. In the small eye-tracking testing room, I watched a series of clips of men and women masturbating. Rieger told me that for most men, their pupil dilation is a strong predictor of their sexual identity. But my professed identity (mostly gay) didn’t match my pupil response. “You dilated almost twice as much as a regular gay man and almost as much as a regular straight man to women,” Rieger told me. “Your pupils actually tell me that you’re more bi than gay.”
That was news to me. I felt a sudden kinship with the self-described bisexual men in Bailey’s original 2005 study, who must have been surprised to learn that they had their sexual orientation all wrong. I could imagine a potentially awkward scenario the next time someone asked me if I was into men or women. “Well, now, that depends on whether you believe the sex researchers at Northwestern or Cornell,” I might have to say.
Rieger’s suggestion did throw me for a momentary loop. Might I actually be bisexual? Have I been so wedded to my gay identity — one I adopted in college and announced with great fanfare to family and friends — that I haven’t allowed myself to experience another part of myself? In some ways, even asking those questions is anathema to many gays and lesbians. That kind of publicly shared uncertainty is catnip to the Christian Right and to the scientifically dubious, psychologically damaging ex-gay movement it helped spawn. As out gay men and lesbians, after all, we’re supposed to be sure — we’re supposed to be “born this way.” It’s a politically important position (one that’s helping us achieve marriage equality and other rights), but it leaves little space for out gay men to muddy the waters with talk of Kinsey 4s and 5s.
Bisexuality, too, is politically problematic. Are bisexuals born bisexual? Where does choice come into the picture? John Sylla’s longtime partner, Mike Szymanski, told me that his parents didn’t accept his bisexual identity. “If you’re born that way and you can’t choose, that’s something we can accept, but if you like both, then you do have a choice,” Szymanski’s mother told him.
Unlike Szymanski, I don’t believe I’m bisexual — no matter what my pupils suggest. It doesn’t feel true as a sexual orientation, nor does it feel right as my identity. And though I don’t discount the value of studying arousal in a lab setting, I spoke to several bisexual activists who did. Sexuality, they told me, is far too complex to be quantified by our reaction to pornography. “Sure, sexual orientation is partly about our response to visual stimuli,” Robyn Ochs told me. “But it’s about other sensory inputs too. And it’s about our emotional response. Sexuality is so complex, and I worry that valuable funding dollars are going to studies that don’t actually really tell us all that much about bisexuality.”
To their credit, both Rieger and Savin-Williams were thoughtful in their conversations with me about the challenges of studying bisexuality. Savin-Williams, in particular, said he was mostly interested in understanding the “incredible diversity” among bisexuals. He told me about one young man he interviewed whose arousal looked “extraordinarily gay” in the lab. But he was romantically interested in only women. “He falls madly in love with girls all over the place,” Savin-Williams said, “and it’s not because he hates the ‘gay’ part of himself. He just connects romantically and emotionally with women in a way he doesn’t with men. Will that change? Perhaps. But right now he’s not 50-50 interested in men and women — it’s almost like he’s 100 percent and 100 percent, but in two different ways. Most of the time sexual attraction and romantic attraction will overlap, but for some bisexual people, there’s a discrepancy between the two.”
Rieger nodded. “People constantly surprise you,” he said, recalling one young man who announced that he was “50-50 bisexual” but who only showed arousal to women in the lab. “His arousal was like a perfect straight guy,” Rieger told me.
“Sounds like he’s romantically attracted to guys but sexually attracted to women,” Savin-Williams said. “I think there’s a lot more sexual complexity and nuance among men than researchers have assumed for years.”
I heard something similar from Lisa Diamond, who has spent much of her career studying identity and same-sex attraction in women. She had long assumed that men were much less likely to be “sexually fluid,” but she has since changed her mind. At a conference in Austin in February, she presented a paper that summarized the initial findings from her survey of 394 people — including gay men, lesbians, bisexual men and women and heterosexual men and women. It was called: “I Was Wrong! Men Are Pretty Darn Sexually Fluid, Too!”
Diamond had her subjects, who were between 18 and 35, fill out an extensive questionnaire about their sexual attractions and identity at various points in their lives. She was surprised to find that almost as many men transitioned at some point from a gay identity to a bisexual, queer or unlabeled one, as did from a bisexual identity to a gay identity. Thirty-five percent of gay men also reported experiencing other-sex attractions in the past year, and 10 percent of gay men reported other-sex sexual behavior during the same period. “I think our categories of gay versus bisexual don’t capture all the important space in between,” she said.
There is perhaps no demographic group more likely to revel in the space between sexual-identity categories — or to obliterate them altogether — than college students.
Last spring at the College of Wooster in Ohio, I attended a student-run event titled “Not So Straight and Narrow: An Introduction to Bisexual, Pansexual and Fluid Identities.” Robyn Ochs said events like that, and a marked increase in bisexual and transgender activism among young people challenging long-held beliefs about gender and sexuality, will most likely do more to change cultural perceptions of bisexuality than any laboratory research will.
At the Wooster event, which was attended mostly by students who identified as something other than heterosexual, the moderators explained that many young people reject the “gender binary” — or the classification of gender as two polarized expressions of masculinity and femininity. Many of the students in the room felt that their gender identity was not so easily categorized. Nor, too, was their sexual orientation — it certainly didn’t fit into neat binary classifications like gay or straight.
The moderators defined bisexuality as being attracted “to one or more genders.” “Bi means two, except not really,” a moderator said. “Bisexuality was initially defined as being attracted to both men and women, but it’s being reclaimed and expanded. For example, being bisexual can now mean being attracted to women and to feminine-identified trans people.”
(Ochs has developed a widely used definition of bisexuality that takes these changes into account: “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way and not necessarily to the same degree.”)
Still, as enthusiastic and supportive as everyone appeared to be at the Wooster event, there’s the real world to consider. When students were asked to shout out myths that they’d heard about bisexuals, they had plenty: “You just need to decide.” “You want an excuse to sleep with anyone.” “You can’t be faithful.” “You’re really just gay.” “You must have an S.T.D.” “It’s a phase.” “You just want attention.”
A bisexual male student, who didn’t attend the event, told me later that even his more liberal and accepting friends assumed he was gay even after he came out as bisexual. “It was only when I slept with a few girls at school that I shut them up,” he said.
A.I.B. is currently funding several studies exploring the experience of bisexual youth, including several by Eric Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Winchester, in England. Anderson, who is working on a book about bisexuality, said that much of the research into bisexual people is skewed by biased samples. “To find bisexuals, many researchers have gone to L.G.B.T. support groups or other places where you’re going to find people who feel they need support or who are outcasts in some way,” he said. “But many bisexuals — especially many bisexual young people — don’t need support and are doing great.”
In 2011, Anderson and two co-authors hit the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and London in search of bisexual men to interview. “Bisexual men, we’re paying $40 for academic research!” the researchers shouted in 20-second intervals at several locations in each city.
Anderson and his team conducted in-depth interviews with 90 openly bisexual men they met using their unconventional method, including many bisexuals of color. The researchers found that the younger men had significantly more positive bisexual coming-out experiences. They also noted that they “appeared more confident, socially competent and at ease discussing their sexuality.”
This didn’t come as a surprise to Anderson, who wrote that “the liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality in American cultures has also been beneficial for bisexual men.” Even heterosexual young men are helped by this trend, Anderson told me. “There’s substantially less homophobia and biphobia among young people than adults,” he said, “and if you scroll through the photos of young straight-identified men on Facebook, you’d think that many of them were bisexual. Guys are just much more physically demonstrative with each other, much more playful and affectionate, than they were a decade or two ago.”
Anderson believes that the “one-time rule of homosexuality” — the assumption that if a guy has one same-sex experience, then he must be gay or bisexual — is no longer considered valid by many young people.
“I ask male youth, ‘Can a guy have sex with a guy once and not be gay,’ and they say: ‘Of course. He could be bi, or straight, or just trying,’ ” Anderson said. “When I interview young men about their identity, I hear a lot of, ‘I’m mostly straight,’ or ‘I hookup with a guy every once in a while.’ These guys don’t usually identify as bisexual, but some of them will tell me: ‘I’m not really sure what I am. Maybe I am bisexual.’ ”
Anderson added that many young people aren’t sure what qualifies as bisexual: “Does their attraction have to be 50-50? What about if it’s 80-20? Should they still consider themselves bisexual then? Should they adopt that identity? Many young men don’t know, and they’re not in a rush to put a label on that uncertainty.”
On my last night with A.I.B. in Los Angeles, I joined John Sylla and Mike Szymanski for dinner. Szymanski isn’t involved with A.I.B., but like Sylla, he’s a longtime bisexual activist. As a young man, Szymanski identified as gay and even worked for a gay magazine, but he surprised himself by falling in love with a woman. “So I had to sneak around with my girlfriend,” he told me, “lest I start a scandal at the office.”
Though I spent enough time talking to bisexual people to know that there’s one question that annoys them above all others, I couldn’t help myself. After a glass or two of wine, I heard myself asking Sylla if he was “more attracted” to men or women. I had assumed that the answer would be men, because he’d been with Szymanski for 17 years — and they’re monogamous, according to what Szymanski wrote in “The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe.”
Sylla smiled patiently and told me that in a purely physical sense, he was probably more interested in women. “But my attraction to a person doesn’t have much to do with their body parts,” he said.
“But do you feel any internal or external pressure to identify as gay, because you’ve been together so long?” I asked.
Szymanski chuckled. “It used to be an annual conversation with my parents at Thanksgiving. ‘Still bisexual? Still bisexual?’ ” he said. “But we don’t ask straight people about the last time they had sex and then suggest that they aren’t actually heterosexual if it’s been a while.”
Sylla added that it was important — both for his own sense of authenticity and for bisexual visibility — to continue to publicly identify as bisexual. “The world needs more out bi people so that bisexuals can find support and community, just like gay people have when they come out,” he said. “Many bisexuals just end up saying they’re gay if they’re with a same-sex person or straight if they’re with an opposite-sex person. It’s easier to do that — you don’t have to constantly correct people or deal with people’s stereotypes about bisexuality and fidelity.”
Szymanski told me about two female friends of theirs who only dated men until meeting each other late in life. “They’re pretty militant about their lesbianism now,” Szymanski said, “but I’ll ask them, ‘Did you have really great sex with guys?’ They nod. ‘Did you have orgasms?’ They nod. ‘Could you still have them?’ They nod. But they insist that they’re lesbians, because, I think, they’re convinced it’s in their best interest to identify that way.”
“Another case of bisexual invisibility,” Sylla said.
“Yes, and it’s strange to me,” Szymanski added. “Because wouldn’t their behavior suggest something different? Wouldn’t it suggest that they’re actually, you know, bisexual?”
- - -
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer and an assistant professor of writing and publishing at Emerson College. His new book, “Travels With Casey,” will be published in July.
Photography by Hannah Whitaker, for The New York Times