The Silent B

8 Jun 2018

In the first of a new series of blogs focusing on equality and diversity, Carol Shepherd - who has recently completed her PhD on bisexuality and Christianity and is the author of Bisexuality and the Western Christian Church: The Damage of Silence (Palgrave) - looks at the phenomenon of 'bi erasure'.

A GLAAD report of 2015 (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) reported that 51 per cent of the LGB population in the USA identified as bisexual.

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll in the UK, also 2015, found that 49 per cent of 18-24 year olds in the UK did not identify as 'exclusively heterosexual' and therefore non-binary in terms of sexuality.

It is thus not unreasonable to assume that around half of current students at the University of Winchester identify as somewhere on the spectrum between 'exclusively straight' and 'exclusively homosexual' on the Kinsey Scale. Whilst there exists a range of terminology for so-called 'middle sexualities' - bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, to name but a few - many of these students will self-identify as the most commonly known of these, bisexual.

Bisexuality has until recently been commonly defined as a romantic or sexual attraction to both men and women, reinforcing the gender binary. In fact, the preferred definition by most bisexual academics and activists these days is simply this: bisexuality is attraction to more than one gender.

Bisexual behaviour, if not the orientation, has been documented in most ancient societies and has arguably existed since time memorial. Why is it, then, that so little is said about bisexuality in popular culture, activist circles, theology and academia?

I have recently completed my doctoral research on bisexuality and Christianity, where I found virtually zero mention of bisexuality within church literature, doctrinal statements, pastoral training and teaching resources. There was plenty discussion of homosexuality, especially on issues surrounding same-sex marriage, a little bit on transgender issues in the wake of the Bathroom Bills in the US, but practically no acknowledgement of bisexuality or bisexual people. This trend is continued in secular society, where the B in LGBT is all too often ignored, or conflated with homosexuality, though the issues faced by bisexual people are quite different from those faced by gay and lesbian individuals. Sociologists call this phenomenon 'bi erasure'.

When bisexual people are given a mention, they are often spoken of in derogatory terms, as sexual gluttons, procrastinators or hypocrites, masking their 'true' homosexuality behind a veneer of heterosexual privilege. Ironically, this prejudice comes from both the straight and LGBT communities, resulting in bisexual people facing a double dose of discrimination. This has a catastrophic effect on the mental health of bisexual people.

A Canadian study from 2010 (Brenner et al) found that nearly half of bisexual women and over a third of bisexual men had seriously considered or attempted suicide, compared to just 9.6 per cent of heterosexual women and 7.4 per cent of heterosexual men. Statistics for lesbian and gay individuals fall roughly halfway between the two. This is borne out in my research, where all but a handful of bisexual people I interviewed had some form of depressive illness, from dysthymia (low level depression) to suicide ideation.

The dual stressors of bi erasure and bi stigmatisation means that bisexual people - and our bisexual students here at the University of Winchester - need our support. Often this support is something as simple as giving acknowledgement to bisexuality and bisexual people. We do this by not conflating bisexuality with homosexuality, by making visible efforts to raise awareness of bisexual issues - for example, by celebrating International Bisexuality Day on 23 September - or by hosting a bisexual symposium to follow the transgender symposium held in January 2018.

Perhaps most importantly, bisexual people themselves need to speak 'their truth' and make their voices heard. We are, after all, the largest sector within the LGB(T) community, despite the silence surrounding the B.

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