5 Years Later: What Has Changed Since The New York Times “Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists”

3/23/2019

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In early March 2014, I received a phone call from the New York Times asking if I’d be willing to have my picture used on the cover of their weekly magazine.

In that second, I went through dozens of emotions in rapid succession. At first, I felt naked, exposed, and afraid. This was for a cover story about bisexuality. And my picture on that magazine would mean that my face, my name, and my bisexuality would be on display for tens of millions of people.

This was early in my tenure as Director of the American Institute of Bisexuality. While I was out to most of the important people in my life, this moment brought back all kinds of feelings from a decade earlier: of sitting down at the Thanksgiving table, of knowing the time had come for me to tell my parents that I am bi, of wondering if this revelation would change my relationship with them forever.

I felt terrified. Intellectually, I knew saying yes was the right thing to do and I was deeply honored, especially since bi activism is my calling. But still, part of me wanted to stick to old habits, born out of survival during the intense homophobia of the 80s and 90s. A big part of me wanted to keep the option of staying in the closet. I was afraid to let go of the ability to control who knew, and who didn’t know, about my bisexuality.

Long story short, this happened:

Despite my initial terror, the experience wound up being overwhelmingly positive. Although my parents weren’t thrilled at me broadcasting my “proclivities” to the world, my friends raced to their local newsstand or Starbucks, bought copies, and posted photos to social media. Old friends from college and high school, people I hadn’t spoken to in years – some of whom are pretty conservative – wrote me, saying they’d read the article and found it moving and informative. Cousins with whom I’d never shared my full, real self out of fear they’d reject me said they were proud we were related.

The magnitude of the article’s impact soon became clear to me. This was going to take awareness of bisexuality to a new level. The New York Time’s audience sprawls across America, this is “The Newspaper of Record.” This story brought the concept of bisexuality into their living rooms, onto their computers and phones, and into their consciousness.

The article was titled “The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists.” I would have called it “The Scientific Quest to Understand Bisexuality,” but admittedly that probably wouldn’t have garnered even a fraction of the attention. But whatever the packaging, mainstream audiences across North America and beyond were now learning key Bi-101 lessons such as:

More people identify as bi than gay or lesbian, we are the “invisible majority”

You’ll also hear about bi erasure, the idea that bisexuality is systematically minimized and dismissed. This is especially vexing to bi 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., bi people comprise a slight majority.”

Many bi people never come out, or find it easier to identify as gay or straight later in life

Bi people are so unlikely to be out about their orientation — in a 2013 Pew Research Survey, only 28 percent of people who identified as bi 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.

Bi people face discrimination from both the gay and straight communities

Studies have found that straight-identified people have more negative attitudes about bi people (especially bi 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.

Bisexuality does not reinforce the gender binary

The moderators defined bisexuality as being attracted “to one or more genders.”

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, nearly equal numbers of men transition from bi to gay identity as gay to bi

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 bi, queer or unlabeled one, as did from a bi identity to a gay identity.

Sexuality is fluid for both men and women

 At a conference in Austin in February, [Lisa Diamond] presented a paper that summarized the initial findings from her survey of 394 people — including gay men, lesbians, bi men and women and heterosexual men and women. It was called: “I Was Wrong! Men Are Pretty Darn Sexually Fluid, Too!”

Sexual orientation is made up of identity, attraction, and behavior, all of which are distinct and incomplete on their own.

“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 bi, but some of them will tell me: ‘I’m not really sure what I am. Maybe I am bi.’”

Physical attraction and romantic attraction are separate things

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 bi people, there’s a discrepancy between the two.”

Sexuality is a spectrum and the Kinsey Scale is a useful way to talk about that spectrum

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.

This article was one small sign that attitudes around bisexuality were changing, that people were ready to quit using bisexuality as a punchline and ready to start learning. Maybe some big social changes were taking place. It’s hard to measure something as abstract as societal acceptance of a sexual orientation, but there have been some very positive indicators in the 5 years since this article was published.

1) The world’s first Bi Pride

In September 2018, the city of West Hollywood (home to LA LGBT Pride), in conjunction with amBi,  held the world’s 1st-ever citywide bi pride event. After a bi pride march through the streets of West Hollywood, Mayor John Duran made a Bisexual Day Proclamation and welcomed by revelers to the celebration.

2) Increased Visibility in the Political Sphere

A series of openly-bi politicians broke barriers and represented our community on the national stage. In 2016 Kate Brown was appointed the Governor Oregon when her predecessor resigned. She was then reelected in 2016 as an out bi woman. This not only made her America’s first openly LGBT Governor elected to office, but also the highest ranking LGBT politician in US history.

Kate Brown was just the beginning though. Two years later, in 2018, Kyrsten Sinema was the first openly bi person elected to the U.S. Senate, and the first woman to represent Arizona in the Senate.

3) Marriage Equality in the U.S.

With its Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across America in 2015. With that, the U.S.A. became the most populous country on the planet to offer everyone the right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender. Marriage is government recognition of a relationship, so marriage equality brought with it things like Social Security, Medicare, disability and veterans benefits, family medical insurance, inheritance and citizenship rights, and the ability to make medical decisions for each other.

4) Bisexuality at the United Nations

In March 2018, the U.N. had its first-ever discussion of bisexuality, a special side event of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was a well-attended by representatives of governments across the globe and for many of them, it was their first-ever exposure to Bi-101. It was followed by a meeting with the office of the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It also led to the U.N. Free & Equal Campaign’s first-ever content on bisexuality.

5) Bi visibility in the media

We went from a handful of minor characters, villains, and oddballs in fiction, to major bi characters in many shows and films. Valkyrie and Deadpool in the Marvel Universe, Petra and Adam in Jane The Virgin, Darryl and Valencia in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Sarah Lance in The DC Universe, and countless others. We now have bi heroes and villains; monogamous bis and poly bis; super power bis and average Joe bis; bi men and bi women all flashing across our screens. There’s even a bi reality dating show.

And it isn’t just in the fictional worlds that we are seeing bi representation. More and more actors, musicians, artists, politicians, and other public figures have been opening up about their bisexuality and shouting it from the rooftops.

Five years ago I spoke with the New York Times about the importance of bi visibility. In those five years we haven’t solved all of the world’s problems, but the future is looking brighter for us bi folks. We are still less likely to come out than our lesbian and gay peers, we still have problems finding romantic partners that accept us, and we still face discrimination too often from both straight and gay communities.

On the other hand, we are also seeing ourselves represented so much more. Bisexuality is much less of a stigma than it once was and more and more people are aware that bisexuality is real and that we deserve to be counted. The more of us that come out, that demand to be seen and counted, the easier it will be for others trying to do the same. Let’s keep up this momentum and hopefully in another 5 years, when someone else is posing for the cover of a magazine, they won’t have to doubt or fear being open about their bisexuality. They will be gleefully shouting it from the rooftops.

Ian Lawrence-Tourinho
Ian Lawrence-Tourinho is a Director of the American Institute of Bisexuality and heads amBi, a growing network of socially-focused bi communities. As an activist, he is particularly interested in mutual support networks as a health and human rights intervention for bi people. You can follow him on Twitter @IanLourinho