We Exist. Bisexual Men on Misconceptions, Stereotypes & Bi Invisibility

Instinct Magazine | Stevie St. John | JUNE/JULY 2014

On the tennis and volleyball courts, Dennis Slade Jr. blends in. Most of the players in his LGBT sports leagues are gay men, and they usually assume that Slade and his male fiancé share that identity.

In the case of Slade’s fiancé, the assumption is correct. Slade, though, is bisexual.

On the rare occasion that sexual identity comes up in conversation, Slade feels like it’s his responsibility to speak up. He’s often the only openly bi person present, and he wants to respond to misconceptions that people have about bisexuals—such as the perennial notion that bisexuals don’t exist. People with that view will even tell Slade, “You’re not really bi.”

“Do you want me to prove it?” Slade will often ask. “I don’t know why I’m having that conversation with you. You have to accept my word for how I feel and who I am inside.”

The ring on Slade’s finger confuses some people, too. It gives the impression he’s “chosen a team,” as it were. That’s not the case, Slade will explain; getting married doesn’t change the fact that he’s attracted to both men and women. “I am still bisexual.”

BISEXUALS, whose attractions aren’t confined solely to men or solely to women, constitute the largest segment of the LGBT community, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. (Bi women account for about three-fourths of bisexuals, with bisexual men making up 11 percent of respondents to the survey.) And the concept of sexual fluidity isn’t new. Plenty of gays and lesbians ponder where they fit on the Kinsey scale, which expresses sexuality as a spectrum with heterosexual and homosexual as opposite poles. Many know people who identify as bisexual, fluid, pansexual or otherwise nonmonosexual (with “bisexual” generally used as an umbrella term for people with these identities).

Yet bisexuality remains widely misunderstood. Bisexuals are stereotyped as promiscuous, indecisive, greedy and untrustworthy. They’re thought as not having completed their coming out. Or they’re considered, as a New York Times headline put it, “Straight, Gay or Lying?” That was in 2005, when Northwestern University published survey results that purported to call male bisexuality into question. A subsequent 2011 Northwestern University study generated different headlines, this time proclaiming that yes, bisexual men do exist. Not exactly a big reveal for bi men themselves, who are keenly aware that others often regard their identity as invalid.

In fact, Seth Fischer, a Los Angeles bisexual man, finds attitudes in gay spaces so off-putting that he spends less time in them than he once did. “I felt like I always had to explain myself, prove that I was real. I couldn’t stand the patronizing tone so many people took with me,” says Fischer, who has written about bisexuality for BuzzFeed and The Rumpus. “To be honest, I have shamefully few gay male friends…but I think the few gay male friends I do have are absolutely wonderful. I think I’m friends with them because I’ve never had to tell them, ‘I exist.’ I could tell from their body language and the way they spoke to me that they just got it. I’m very busy. I don’t have time to go around proving my existence to people anymore.”

WITH misconceptions and biphobia coming both from within the LGBT community and from mainstream culture, bisexuals sometimes feel maligned by both worlds. Or they feel altogether unseen, perpetually presumed to be either gay or straight based on who they’re with—a problem referred to as bi invisibility.

Stigma contributes to bi invisibility, Slade says, and to the bi closet. While 77 percent of gay men say most or all of the important people in their lives know about their sexual orientation, that’s the case for only 12 percent of bi men, according to the Pew survey.

A lot of people who eventually identify as bisexual first identify as gay or straight, Slade says, because they have someone telling them that they can’t be bi. “I was lucky,” he adds, noting that he came out as a teenager in Philadelphia. “There was no one to tell me what I couldn’t do.”

For Curt Duffy, coming out was more confusing. He knew from a young age that he had “a spectrum of attractions” and that he was interested in both men and women. The confusing part was how isolated that made him feel.

“Can I really be the only person in the world who feels like this?” Duffy thought. When he found a bisexual social group in Los Angeles, Duffy finally found a sense of community. Now Duffy’s active in the bi community, and he’s on the steering committee of the Los Angeles Bi Task Force. Duffy, a college instructor, says his students talk about bisexuality and sexual fluidity with a perspective different from that of older generations. (Younger people are also more likely to identify as bisexual, according to the Pew study.)

“For them, it isn’t even an issue,” Duffy says. “It’s a completely different world.” Duffy has encountered his share of people who dismiss his identity, including gay men uncomfortable with the idea of dating bisexuals. Overall, though, Duffy says that he’s seen the LGBT community grow much more accepting of its “B” over the past 15 years.

Peter Ruggiero, too, says he has found LGBT people to be generally accepting of the fact that he’s bisexual. That could be partly because he gravitates toward accepting environments, and, he says, it could be “a function of Boston,” where he lives. Still, Ruggiero would like to see gays, lesbians and bisexuals more united.

“We need to find a way to understand that we are all rowing the same boat together here,” he says. “Let’s discuss and become more comfortable with fluidity. Let’s not get so attached to the labels. I think we have to reframe the way we talk about it.”

IT WOULD be nice, Fischer says, if there wasn’t so much pressure on people to categorize themselves. Many gay-identified men have told Fischer that they have some degree of feelings for or attraction to women. That doesn’t mean that all of those men are bisexual, he adds. Some, though, have told Fischer they really are bisexual, but they identify as gay because of pressure to “choose a side.”

“I think there is definitely something wrong with the way we categorize things,” he continues. “I’m not sure if the answer is more letters in the alphabet soup or a need to get rid of them for something all-encompassing like ‘queer,’ but whatever we have now is really confusing a lot of people. “It’s like we’ve had to define ourselves in opposition to the wacko fundamentalist idea that it’s a ‘lifestyle choice,’ so we feel like we can’t tolerate any ambiguity, or else our enemies will get us.”

Rio Veradonir, a bisexual Oregon man, compares biphobia from within the LGBT community to homophobia from mainstream culture. “Gay men need to look deep into their hearts and remember how it feels when people question their identity,” Veradonir says. “Being gay is not a choice. And neither is being bi. And when certain gay men belittle bisexual men by doubting our sincerity, they are, sadly, doing the same thing to us that some straight people do to them.

“I don’t think they mean to be hypocrites. But if they really think about it, they will realize that their personal experiences are not universal and that biphobia in the gay community results from ignorance in the same way that homophobia does generally,” Veradonir continues. “In the end, I believe that gay men want the same things I want—fairness and equality for all people regardless of their sexual orientation. By working together, we can achieve that.”