What Keeps Bi Men in the Closet?

SadMan

 

eric scrimshaw 2

Dr. Eric Schrimshaw

Dr. Eric Schrimshaw, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, recently published an academic paper in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, which explored why bisexually behaving men don’t disclose their same-sex sexual behavior to their female partners, family members, and friends. His findings revealed some unexpected reasons for bisexual nondisclosure, and illustrate some of the specific challenges bisexual men face regarding stigma. I had the pleasure to speak to Dr. Schrimshaw to get a better sense of the results from his study, and to find out what the far-reaching implications of his research are.

 

Zachary Zane: Hello Eric. First I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I want to say I loved your article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior because it’s crucial there’s more research that focuses on the specific challenges and needs of bisexual men. Additionally, your research revealed some new information on stigma and reasons for nondisclosure among bisexual men. But before we get too much further, could you tell me a little bit about what your research question was, and what it was your were attempting to find out?

Dr. Eric  Schrimshaw: My colleagues and I here at Columbia had a large federally funded study from the National Institute of Health (NIH), and its primary goal was looking at potential sexual risk behavior among bisexual men and their female partners, in essence researching how bisexual men act as bridge population for spreading HIV to women. But I approached the research from a different angle that matched my interests. For a long time, I’ve looked at the coming out process [for queer men], how relationships are formed, the benefits of disclosing sexual identity, and the potential health consequences of concealment and stigma. So I approached the research from that angle.

We conducted a large number of qualitative interviews with [203] men. In addition to many topics that we had as the research team, we also allow the men, themselves, to raise interesting questions and about their life and their experiences [being closeted]. One of the topics that we were very interested in was the issue of disclosure, concealment, and stigma.

ZZ: What was the framework for your research, and how were you planning to build on it?

ES: There has been very little research on why bisexual men choose to come out relative to the amount of research that’s been conducted for gay men. That, in itself, is an important extension on the current cannon. The few studies that have been conducted [specifically on bisexual men] have reached two conclusions.  Some argue that nondisclosure is mainly an issue of identity confusion. I think this perpetuates a larger stereotype when it comes to bisexual men. There is this perception that bisexuality is temporary and that bi men are simply confused. In some extreme cases, many [individuals] think bisexual men don’t even exist. But that’s just one side of the argument. We were interested in the other. We asked ourselves, was it possible that issues of stigma and biphobia were contributing to why bisexual men are unable or unwilling to be open about their sexuality?

ZZ: What did your results reveal?

ES: When we asked men directly why they hadn’t told their female partners, family members, and friends, the men told us clearly that the expectation of various stigmatizing responses is why they remained closeted. It wasn’t a matter of identity confusion.

They thought their female partners, in particular, would have strong emotional reactions to finding out that they were bisexual, and that she would terminate the relationship immediately, file for divorce, move out, or throw him out. They thought that family and friends would also have homophobic, stigmatizing reactions. Either directly verbalizing their disapproval of homosexuality, or outing him to others as bisexual and having those issues publicized. Because the men in our study wanted to maintain the public’s view of them as heterosexual because they are in these relationships with women, they didn’t want to disclose their sexuality.

Additionally, the men in the study thought their female partners would have the most negative reactions. Even the men who came from a conservative or religious background thought the response from their female partner would be worse than their parents. While they thought that their parents would react disappointed, many didn’t think they would be rejected for the rest of their life. This wasn’t the case for female partners. For friends, they thought they might lose some of their [straight male] friendships, or their relationship with them would be a little awkward at times, but in the end, they thought they’d get more accepting reactions from their straight friends than from their female partners.

ZZ: And did you look at non-disclosure of bisexual men with gay same-sex partners?

ES: We have the data and are currently working on it. Some of the men don’t feel the need to advertise their sexuality to their male partners. They allow men to assume they’re gay. Others use their bisexuality and identity as a selling point, because bisexual men are fetishized by many gay men, perceived as being particularly masculine, sexy, or attractive.

ZZ: I know your study consisted of an ethnically diverse sample: Men of all races, educations, socioeconomic background and religions.   

ES: Yes, we were able to recruit a nice large and ethnically diverse sample. One of the benefits of doing research in New York City.

ZZ: I noticed that with the diverse sample, you were able to dispel the notion of the “down-low,” (DL) HIV-spreading black man: A racist bisexual trope in society. You did this by showing that men who have sex with men and women (MSMW) regardless of race, often don’t disclose their bisexual behavior. Could you discuss this more in detail?

ES: Past literature notes that African American and Latino men are more likely to identify as bisexual rather than gay, and disclose their sexuality less. In our study, we didn’t find that, in part because all of our men had not disclosed, but one of the things we did find was that White and Asian men articulated the same reasons and concerns about stigma and nondisclosure as Latino and African American men. We had an Italian American [participant] with a Catholic background who lives in Brooklyn speak about how the church, his parents, and friends would not accept his bisexuality. We had a number of Indian and Filipino [men] who spoke about their traditional immigrant family, and how same-sex sexuality is not accepted in their culture. We saw the same thing for Orthodox Jewish men too. These are the same stories that we hear from African American and Latino men. So we found that the reasons chosen for not disclosing were similar across the four racial groups.

ZZ: Do you think there is a divide between emotional and physical attraction? It seemed like many of the men in your study were physically attracted to men but not emotionally attracted. There was a lot of talk of, “It’s just sex.”

ES: We were just looking at a subgroup of bisexual men who were having relationships with female partners [and not disclosing their bisexual behavior]. So in our population, we saw that the majority of men tend to have purely sexual interactions with their male partners. But if we were looking at a general sample of bisexual men, we would expect to see more emotional relationships. Still, even within our group, there were some men who wished they could be more open and affectionate with their male partners, but were concerned about being discovered.

ZZ: So it sounds like it was a combination. Some of the bisexual men were only physically attracted to men and others, who might have been emotionally attracted to men, didn’t act on those feelings because of internalized homophobia or fear of others finding out.

ES: Exactly.

ZZ: One of the things you mentioned was a limitation of this study is that you had to volunteer in order to be in the study. You mentioned in your paper that this means these men were open about their sexuality, but I would also argue these men are less confused. Because I know when I was “confused” or in denial, I would never have signed up for a study about me having sex with both men and women. Could that confound the findings, explaining why none of the men were uncertain about their (bi)sexuality?

ES: I will agree that I didn’t see a lot of identity confusion in the men we sampled. Our men, for the most part, even though many identified to themselves as heterosexual, were very clear that they enjoyed sex with men and planned to continue having sex with men. So, no, as you mention there wasn’t a lot of identity confusion. That may be in part related to the fact that they had to meet in person with an interviewer to discuss these issues. That being said, this is a much less open sample than previous studies because we focused on men whose female partners did not know about their bisexual behavior. So every person in this study was to some degree closeted and had a publicly heterosexual identity.

ZZ: Last question. How do we decrease stigma for bisexual men in different sex-relationships?

ES: I think there are a number of things. One, the research community has done a disservice to bisexual men by tending to lump bisexual and gay men together in studies, instead of looking at the two groups separately. I’m convinced through this study and various others, that while we have a number of commonalities including stigma, we need to be addressing the individual needs and concerns of gay and bisexual men separately. I think this will increase awareness, both in the research world and larger LGBTQ+ community.

But at the same time, I also understand a lot of the driving factors that lead heterosexuals to say, “There aren’t any ‘real’ bisexual men.” They don’t know that their friends and family members are bisexual because of the tendency for bi men to keep their sexuality on the DL, especially if they’re in a relationship with a female partner. So just as the National Coming Out Day has been a real benefit for gay and lesbians to raise public awareness and disprove stereotypes, bisexuals need to do this as well. Bisexual men, women, and celebrities can increase the awareness of bisexuality by coming out and letting others know of their bisexual identity even if they are in a male-female relationship. I think that too, does a lot of good for raising awareness and dispelling stereotypes.

ZZ: Yes, it’s so important that as many bisexuals come out as often and repeatedly as they can if they are safe to do so.

ES: Absolutely.

 

 

Zachary Zane
Zachary Zane is a modern day Carrie Bradshaw from Los Angeles. His writing focuses on (bi)sexuality, gender, identity politics, dating, and relationships. He's currently a contributor at Cosmopolitan, Bustle, PRIDE, and Huffington Post Queer Voices. He's working on a novel, which explores the modern relationship between masculinity, vulnerability, and sexuality.




  • mwalsh65

    So…basically…they wanted to (and do) have their cake and eat it too. Your partners have the right to know who you are and make their decisions accordingly. I am the straight wife of a bisexual man who did not cheat on me. I did not reject him when he told me about his sexual orientation after being married for more than 20 years. I won’t deny that it was rough going for awhile (fear of abandonment on my part and anger about his not being honest about something so fundamental), but I love him and he did not hurt me. With full knowledge and honesty, we are staying together. You know what would have been the dealbreaker that would have caused me to reject him? Cheating. One of agreed upon terms of our relationship is monogamy. He did not break the terms of our relationship and treated it and me with respect. So, for those men described here who fear rejection – trust me, the rejection most likely will not come from disclosing your sexual orientation. It will come from your breaking the terms of your relationship. If your relationship is supposed to be monogamous – don’t cheat. If you can’t not cheat, for God’s sake, end the relationship or at least come clean and see what happens (you might be pleasantly surprised – many women are turned on by a guy’s bisexuality and/or may consider an open relationship). It is her life too and she has the right to get what she wants just as much as you do. If what she wants is monogamy or even not to be with a bisexual partner, this is her right. It is everyone’s right to make up their own mind about what they want in their relationships. I read this article by clicking through a link about an article bemoaning the fact that many people do not wish to date bisexuals. Being married to one, I know that this group (like any group) cannot be painted with a broad brush. But, as long as there are publicized studies like these that indicate that there is a lot of cheating – rather than information about successful monogamy – unfortunately, the stereotype will persist.

  • udibi

    Do you realize that most “monogamous” men AND women cheat? People puts great value on presenting as monogamous, even if they have no intention of actually being it. That is not the fault of bi people nor is non-monogamy unique to men.

  • mwalsh65

    I don’t understand what your objection is. I did not say that bisexuals cannot be monogamous. My relationship is proof that monogamy with a bisexual partner is possible. I am saying that there are a lot of articles out there about bisexual men cheating on their wives. You have to sift – and sift hard – for monogamous success stories (trust me, I’ve done it). The men in this study were admitted cheaters but expressed fear that their wives would reject them for their orientation. My point is that, in my experience, the wives would more likely reject them for their cheating. I can’t say whether most monogamous men and women cheat. I know that I have never cheated on my husband. I believe him when he says that he has never cheated on me. These are the terms of our relationship. If he had cheated (with a man or a woman), I may very well have left him. And his being with a man would have been worse because, in addition to cheating, he would have been (and was) dishonest with me about a fundamental part of himself. One that I had a right to know existed at least as much as I have a right to know about his parenting and political philosophies. For my own part, his bisexuality was not a dealbreaker. I’m not wild about it (it has more to do with not being wild about being cognizant of his desires for any other person…not really fixating on the gender of the other person), but it really is no different than a straight guy being attracted to other women but remaining monogamous. That being said – partners have a right to know the fundamental natures of their partners. The men in this study are being dishonest and their wives are making life decisions based on dishonest information.

  • Everything’s Ungodly

    don’t pay attention to it. The biggest issue as a pro-bisexual bi guy who has only been with bi people is that those of us who are bi in every aspect of our being who meet each other in public most often because we send off this vibe of “something’s different there” and enough to where we date and find friends of our own group and to us, we are a combination of gay and straight and we have no reason to conform to society telling us we are bad or unhealthy etc when we are in fact very content and when it comes up eventually, we don’t lie. However, then, everyone with gay friends gets them riled up because we’re expected to conform to that culture.

    Which is unfair to both bisexuals on my level and the bisexuals who in many capacities are in hetero dominant relationships or are culturally hetero. Because I and my group have predominantly straight friends because they don’t care and there are variations there.

    There are never stories about bisexuals being in relationships together and on reddit or other places, the rainbow warriors will go in for the kill because culturally we’re expected to be all about that. I was outed at 8 and just didn’t think about it but because I was different, I handled it different so I defended my safety because getting beat up every stay after 8 months in an age 9-14 range made me a threat to the mainstream.

    Because I was “goes both ways” and “part queer” and my understanding of that was gay femme men on TV shows growing up, I was no less or more masculine than straight men and if I have to do that to not get crap, that’s fine. Then gay people started coming out after, including my lesbian mom at age 14 (I am 35 now), were very rejecting of us. Socially, punk/goth and that appeal at the time and my looks seeming to go from cute with the normal range for men to rocking a look similar to The Crow, liking 80’s punk/goth and industrial right at the peak of Marilyn Manson, I had to get a 2nd line. And not being accepted from them didn’t matter because they came out and let kids that were scared of me make mock lisps etc and call them those names and just accepted it. Bisexuality was sort of ideal in those spaces too because it represented, like in the David Bowie Era prior to AIDS, which gay men associated with us prematurely, taking counterculture to a different level.

    However, Bi being trendy for girls that showed off for men who liked it and in goth/punk cultures at parties as well as for gay men and lesbians as a transitional thing (and in the 1990s bisexuality was ONLY LGBT in that respect so they’d get run out after a period when they don’t end up coming out as gay). But as a defense mechanism, from my experience, I found bi people and still do based on that “gaydar scrambler”/oblivious to social rage respect. And a larger group of us exist percentage-wise than the LGBTQ bi people and the hetero leaning bi men, who are picked in this study would be helped more if we increased the bi visibility in many contexts there. The swinger cultures and the sexually bisexual people in that community, take a lot of risks even out of the contexts of studies. Plus outside of the erotic stories here and there in the kinkier heterosexual communities, the culture is stuck because, they, like we, don’t understand.

    The major dissonance with this group is that they will post these types of articles thinking it is helping but it pertains to one small percentage of all of us, like the study claims. And they focus solely on getting us to conform to the gay male norms. Where we are “closeted”, hiding and we need to embrace “our gay side” that to me, is a threat to my reputation because when it comes to unsolicited sexual advances, it’e curious hetero men, homophobic straight men, who are sexually bi or want to experiment and gay men and the “outing witch hunts” and the totally rainbow adorned bi or gay men who want to drag us into that and they specifically target these groups to shame all bi men of all walks of life and time periods etc (the 70s bi men and that group are usually the elders who say, inaction and exclusion of their social pressure is not just ideal for us as a group but in our case, stealth. Most of them fled, the moment we got the hit for the 1st woman with HIV and most of those situations were closeted gay men who had front families and could have a few and do the deed enough to hide it. When we as a group were not just admired but considered socially desirable and most were not even part of the bathhouse culture and bi was a declaration of being beyond the gay liberation or heterosexuality issue.

    That age group when I speak to them very much say that socially, at the point where we became something admired and positive, were socially destroyed from both ends of their fight. David Bowie in 2005 in a UK when bisexuality was brought up said he was very much bisexual and he said that because in America, that period became a period where anger came in our direction mostly and his overall reputation suffered, called himself a “closet heterosexual” and was just “embracing the times” because he was pissed about what was happening but because he wanted to be an artist.

    And these groups, like this page are lead by bi men who are predominantly gay, that like the kinkier hetero types will be open to sexually acting on the here and there same sex attraction they have, who hide that to not get kicked out too, to ones who just tortured themselves in LGBTQ for years or were LGBTQ focused because of a hetero wife who loved gay men/culture or the bi people who were in same sex relationships who all are not very willing to let those of us with experiences shaped differences or if only sexually bisexual and culturally because they suffered their way.

    I know many who also don’t budge because of a lot because they did the work for LGBT and now that we have for us as a community, gives us the assimilation option.

    For instance, the theme they push is very always bisexual men or women but never with any other group or anything out of the Rainbow pride/closet case paradigm. It’s bi week so I a just spreading reality.

  • Everything’s Ungodly

    Part of the problem is that we aren’t allowed to have our own culture. And the diversity of our culture and respecting that the visibility aspect needs to be as broad as it can for us and for women is the biggest problem. The bi community needs to shape up.

    For one: Bi men are still, by default, culturally gay and must conform to those norms. By expanding on the gayness concept and what that means for men, specifically being only attracted to men. So, many of us are really not all that hot with having to embrace a culture that is dominated my gay male norms and choosing not to let our experience in any way involve any disconnect from gay assimilationist LGBTQ norms 24/7. And they will not budge.

    The 70s coming of age bi people had the period where they were in the place of our place being one that was rising and admired… which the rainbow crowd snarks off as “bi chic” because it helped us with visibility on the hetero side. Once AIDS was from a closeted gay man, we took the bullet.

    80’s coming of age Bi men were pretty closeted and deal with a lot of issues that they can probably do okay here because we were in news reports and demonize.

    ****my period****
    In the 90s (1993-2004) age of bisexuality, Punk and Goth were two places that you were solid and that was where I was. It got larger and gay and straight peers came and were very welcome but us bi folks then would be put in power depending more on how we could be dominant. I had a period where I crossdressed at my peak and could wear skimpy, goth girl clothes after my ex girlfriend pressured me but I had the alpha male persona so I loved crossdressing and movement-wise could walk into a group being the ideal goth woman. And it kept the hetero macho element or the femme gay groups that would dip in and out from imposing their community mindset because our scenes were in counterculture or darkness in beauty. I used to be the counter blowhard to them.

    And with femme gay men (because they had to really understand the motive), I’d keep them in check with they can be welcome but this is not the gay community nor does any of that belong here. I’d flat out say, I am bisexual, this culture one of fuck you, not being scared to take it to the top and what I am not doing is drag, what I am doing is much different because I look way more androgynous, am tapping into the blessing this period in puberty has given me and these meatheads who try to run ship are cool with you and all and part of the fuck you of the punk/goth ideology in some way too for whatever reason. I am 50/50. I was outed as bi so I had to beat my way into just walking to school as a kid. I have that respect. But we re open to all that says the same message.

    We area also not afraid to say, that doesn’t mean disrespecting other guy’s boundaries is a free pass. Many straight men are here and I heard and tell bi men and girls the same thing. If they say no, move along. If you get them drunk and then get beat up after for taking advantage of them, cry to the rainbow people. I would encourage anyone to do it with me and we’re commonly bonded by that aspect. You have a community there, we get 3-6 months to come out as gay. Plus, you’ll meet in some places men and women who are getting gender reassignment and we are not them or belittle them but respect them. Understand that you may have things that cause jealousy. If you can be cool with that we’re cool with you. Don’t get upset about people being obsessed with bisexuality… this is an outlet for that and gives us and anyone of all walks of life the place to let that be cool… kink is a thing, however, Christian and jews and muslims, satanists, pagans etc and anything not hateful are all here too. Some of us embrace our beauty, oddity, ugliness etc and I got this and I had an ex bug me into this but it worked.

    2000’s it seemed to spike and rise but I culturally toned it down and learned to pick up on ambiguity.

    2010’s to now… the bi men didn’t exist thing came up as gay men were rising yo and that left a stain… outside of the variants of bisexuality in the heterosexual sense, and Queerness is a thing with the youth.

    We share experiences with bi women and bi men and one main thing is to focus as a whole on the fact we both need to deal with is whoever we love won’t matter because by default whether a man or woman, it’s going to be a man.

    Now, bi women have done a lot to rise and they have been able to have a place with bi men straight men etc in the LGBTQ aka queerness culture. Respectively, hetero by default and the still pushed idea that cisgender bisexual people and mixed orientation relationships are the sole focus are where I feel along with bi people I know even in the mostly gay crowd is the best thing to tackle.

    As bi men we should not have to fear culturally or because we never experienced it as queer until not to long ago was and is a slur and that wont change. Queer also denotes gay and both are reasonable in our case and valid to be worked through because we live in a culture where we need to shut down gay and straight men. There’s nothing wrong with either one and we need to embrace them both in equal concepts to us and gay men need to respect that because our beef with both if them outside of the imbalance on their end that we can experience in a less or more, is not dealing with us.

    We also need to start with the one penis rule dialogue with bi women because we are on that level. Then when it comes to what yelling homophobia stops… we get into feelings because the loss of not being able to love a woman is a core issue that will not result in the experience shaming. Lesbians and bi women are sexual objects to hetero men and gay men are more concerned with men and the men they can have available to them and doing what it takes to have as much as possible so they love tripping us up with the homophobia screams. I know I am being rude. I just want to participate since this is contextually fucked. Because I am a cocky ambiguous type who spots and dates the same, male or female and it is kind of fun to watch others obsess.

    Let’s start doing something. Bi women and their loving women issues are much like lesbian issues that the separatist past has shrouded over. Many of us bi people of certain decades, 70s and 90s particularly find this queen out and express your outness as loud as the loudest queen in LGBTQ annoying. Plus, heterosexually romantic bisexual men have no reason or desire to “come out” but their visibility is needed because they have the lurid, unsafe internet options and many gay men are falling in love and not getting it and we are being shit on from that.

  • mwalsh65

    Thank you so much for sharing all of your insights. I found them to be fascinating and illuminating.