Study Shows Benefits of Coming Out Bi
Jenna Brownfield, counseling psych doctoral student at University of Missouri-Kansas City, in front of a bi pride flag.
Coming out as bi in a straight-privileged, binary world takes courage, and often, repeating. According to Movement Advancement Project, “only 28% of bisexual people say that all or most of the important people in their life know they are bisexual, compared to 77% of gay men and 71% of lesbians.” For bi people, it is not just a matter of coming out as a member of the LGBT community–there are further barriers and challenges. Still, for those of us for whom it is safe and practical, we come out. So what are the benefits?
In early 2016 Jenna Brownfield, counseling psych doctoral student at University of Missouri-Kansas City, embarked on a new study that to delves into that very question. She wanted to identify the benefits bi people experience through coming out, along with what helps and hinders bi people from obtaining those benefits. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Brownfield about the results of the study, where she looks at how bi people “grow pride in bi identity” and “what that pride looks like.”
Demographically, the thirteen participant, nationwide study sample largely identified as European-American, Latinx, and white Latinx, and included cis men and women, genderqueer, agender, nonbinary, and bigender participants. The study welcomed anyone over the age of 18, with an eventual age range of 23-61. All participants were out in some way, defined as having shared one’s bi identity with at least one other person. Hour long interviews with Brownfield were transcribed and analyzed with the help of a team: faculty advisor Dr. Chris Brown, PhD students Sara M. Aslan and Sathya Baanu Jeevanba, master’s students Sarah B. VanMattson and Justine E. Haukebo.
Through phone, Skype, and in-person interviews delving into the impact of coming out, the team identified three areas of growth: “intrapersonal growth (e.g. living more authentically, improved mental health), interpersonal growth (e.g. improved relationships, greater advocacy in daily interactions, greater community advocacy), and increased social consciousness (i.e. greater awareness of privilege and oppression.)” A follow-up was conducted via email giving respondents the chance to speak to the three identified themes. Participants “reported various contextual factors (e.g. family support, bisexual role models, and socio-political climate), resources (e.g. mental health treatment, bi community and general LGBTQ community, higher education institutions), and experiences of discrimination (biphobia, invisibility/erasure, etc.)”
Results from the study found that in particular, and especially within the area of intrapersonal growth, the benefits from the feelings of authenticity derived from being out were universal. Brownfield notes every participant in some way spoke to the feeling of “coming home” to themselves.
Interpersonally, many participants reported having better quality relationships. Parents who were out to their children reported feeling like their “children know [them] at a deeper level” and they have a “deeper connection with each other.” As Brownfield shares, “There is this norm that if you are bi and you’re a parent, don’t tell your kid; they don’t need to know, just be erased and be seen as gay, lesbian, or straight.” So to hear that there are bi parents who have navigated being out as bi to their children and that that experience helped improve their relationship was particularly of note.
Participants also reported feeling more comfortable advocating when confronted with situational biphobia. Many respondents shared they no longer feared being questioned and potentially outed by others suspecting their motives for confronting biphobic statements and actions. Brownfield notes this benefit allows bi people to “feel more comfortable setting boundaries with others.”
The study found that partner support was especially important, and was a factor in helping or hindering coming out growth. Brownfield notes this is a unique aspect of coming out for bi people in that “it may not necessarily mean the end of a relationship” and highlights the importance of resources for partners of bi people.
Community was often mentioned as an aid in coming out growth, with participants reporting bi specific community, general LGBT community, and connecting with a community of queer people of color as being particularly helpful. Brownfield shared some of this community building occurred online, at times before coming out. “Having it there beforehand helped facilitate not just the coming out process but the growth afterward, being able to connect with community after.” Brownfield notes the importance of having visible LGBTQ spaces even if we never walk in. “Some folks even mentioned being on college campuses and seeing [that] the LGBTQ community had a physical space that existed through student orgs. Whether or not they participated in that, it was helpful to see that resource in place.”
With the third theme of social consciousness, Brownfield shares “for participants, especially those that held a multitude of privileged identities… coming out as bi was one of the first experiences where they were navigating with a marginalized identity and realizing ‘Oh, this is what oppression feels like’” which caused them to “build empathy” for the experiences of others. Brownfield notes some participants reported claiming bisexuality also made them “aware of their white privilege, or made them aware of their cisgender privilege.” Participants reported “the diversity they saw within the bisexual community helped them build their social consciousness around what people’s experiences might be with privilege and oppression.”
Brownfield lamented that biphobia and monosexism were shown to impede coming out growth. When asked about hinderances, participants shared “stories about folks not being okay with same sex attraction, stories about gay and lesbian folks rejecting a bi person, stories about being erased or feeling invisible.”
The “impact of invisibility and how that hindered [participants’] ability to come out to themselves and start…the coming out process” was another aspect of coming out often shared. Brownfield notes bi-invisibility “impacted growth,” stating “it really stood out to me that a lot of participants would say ‘I knew the word bisexual, and I knew what that word meant, but even though I knew that in my mind, it still didn’t feel like it was a possibility I was allowed to consider for myself.’”
“That just helps us really understand what that the invisibility is, versus ‘make sure the word bi is included everywhere’. That is part of it, and we also need to make sure it’s being paired with the notion that this is a valid identity to have, instead of ‘this is the word and the definition of it.” Visibility, on the other hand, is a powerful aid for coming out growth. Participants mentioned that directly knowing someone who ”showed pride in [their bi] identity…really helped develop [their] own sense of pride and joy in it.”
A takeaway for Brownfield was “yes there are these struggles, and there can also be benefits of being out.” When talking about the results, Brownfield notes “Overall it really spoke to this idea that we need balanced conversation around what it means to be out. So talking about the struggles and the benefits, instead of just leaning to one or the other.” Brownfield stresses the importance of a move towards this more inclusive model of care. “We can’t just focus on the issues LGBTQ and bi, especially, people face but we need to also be equipped with ways to help empower those people and help that community embrace the pride that they have within themselves.”
This is just a snapshot of this empirical study through University of Missouri-Kansas City, which was completed as a requirement for Brownfield’s program. The study is currently being prepared for consideration for publication in a scholarly journal, so stay tuned for more on the benefits of coming out as bi!
Brownfield, who identifies as bisexual herself, plans to continue her work within the bi community “figuring out how to more specifically support bi folks.”
“You may not be able to be out in every single space that you’re interacting in, and so my hope is that for bi folks, with the spaces where one can be out, I hope they are able to capitalize on that for their own well-being.”
UPDATE: ‘More than simply getting bi: An examination of coming out growth for bisexual individuals’ was published in the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, Vol 5(2).