The B-Word: Why is it so hard to understand male bisexuality?
For this piece, I'm choosing to focus on the experiences of bisexual and queer men. However, there are equally important conversations to be had about the experiences of bisexual and queer people of other genders. I would also like to point out that as a white man, I cannot begin to speak to the unique experiences of bisexual and queer Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. The studies and articles I am quoting aim to be inclusive, but societal bias often leads to underrepresentation of BIPOC.
Bisexual men don’t exist.
Or at least, that’s what society at large would have you believe.
When it comes to male sexuality there is no debate. To most of society, a man is either straight or he’s gay. Case closed.
And I’m telling you, that’s exceptionally confusing to a lot of young men. Growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality, I was faced with two options: be straight (aka normal) or be gay (fine, but not ideal). It was easier for me to be “straight-ish” and keep a huge part of me secret, so I did. And it hurt me. It held me back from a lot of happiness.
Coming out at 27-years old was hard largely due to many of the issues discussed in this piece. It’s also the most liberating thing I’ve ever done.
But I digress.
A couple of months ago, the hashtag #BisexualMenExist was trending on twitter. On the one hand, it’s nice to see male sexuality being discussed so openly. On the other, the notion that bisexual men still have to defend their very existence is exhausting.
Also it turns out, the hashtag was trending in response to Carlton, a Black bisexual man coming out on the popular Netflix show Love Is Blind. And let me just say, if we’re relying on trash reality TV to lead the way on discussions of sexuality, we’re all doomed.
In actuality, the hashtag was created by Vaneet Mehta (@nintendomad888) in response to seeing bi male friends dealing with biphobia. After Love Is Blind aired, he brought the hashtag back. He says, "the conversation of bisexuality amongst men sparked again and inevitably inflamed the biphobia men have to deal with. It seemed like the perfect time to bring the hashtag to the forefront again, to fight that rise in biphobia towards Bi men with positivity."
For many reasons discussed here, society seems to have a pretty huge problem with bisexual men and I think it's about time we start openly discussing it.
Existence is Futile
So let’s start with the issue of existence.
The question – or rather denial - of the existence of bi men seems to come from the assumption that they are all secretly gay.
Writing for Time Magazine in 2017, Ritch C. Savin-Williams states, “Traditionally, our understanding has been that if you’re male and have even a slight attraction to the same sex, then you must be gay. Even if this isn’t immediately apparent, we tell men, it will become so once you’ve come to terms with your true self and exit your ‘phase’ of bicuriosity or questioning.”
Bi men are assumed to be gay and if they say otherwise they must be in denial. Furthermore, an admission of bisexuality automatically comes with all of the perceived baggage of being gay, and thus is assumed to be true.
Adrea Carlo writes “Put simply, in the eyes of a heteronormative society, bisexual males are ‘gay’ to all effects, and as such will receive homophobic exclusion and prejudice.”
If all bi men are secretly gay, then bisexuality does not exist.
The problem is that these are assumptions. And no one’s actually listening to us or validating our experiences.
By the way, this doesn’t just come from heteronormative society either. Some of the worst perpetrators of bierasure (denying the existence of bisexuals) comes from gay men. The phrase “yeah, I used to be bi too” comes to mind, meaning that because they used the label of bi as a stop on the way to gay, then you couldn’t possibly be truly bisexual.
(BTW, there was a recent episode of Will & Grace that attempted to tackle this subject. It truly sucked.)
The single biggest issue bisexual men face is having to constantly prove our existence. But as Alfred Kinsey (himself, a bisexual man) once said, “Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual ... The word is not to be divided into sheep and goats.”
Confused, Greedy and Unfaithful
Even when bisexuality is accepted as a legitimate identity, bi men face a variety of stereotypes, assumptions and misunderstandings (aka. biphobia).
We are thought to be confused. We’re told to pick a side. We’re assumed to be promiscuous.
After all, if you have the potential to be attracted to anyone, that means you want to sleep with everyone, right?
We’re also constantly asked about our ratio of liking men vs. women (FYI it doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split).
In a piece written for Men’s Health, Zacahary Zane—a bi man—writes, “I’m … tired by some of the people who do think bisexuality exists because they often assume negative stereotypes about me and all bi men. They assume all bi men are slutty, or we’re not capable of dating a person monogamously, or we’re greedy or some other BS.”
The truth is, bisexual men have to face these assumptions all the time. But these stereotypes don't just hurt bi men, they also have a strongly negative affect on potential relationships.
In a VICE piece called Why It’s Hard for Men to Come Out as Bi, bisexual identifying men “explained how coming out as bi effected their relationships with women—some men said that some straight women were no longer interested in them as soon as they said they’d slept with men.”
This is a common theme in literature written about bi men.
Take this quote: “In a 2016 survey, 63% of Glamour readers said they would not sleep with a man who had had sex with men.”
In some circles, we’re too gay to be perceived as a desirable partner. While in others, we’re too straight to be trusted.
Not to be Trusted
As mentioned above, biphobia is alive and well within the gay community.
I must mention that personally, I’ve been lucky enough to know many gay men who fully accept my bisexuality, but there does seem to be an added layer of misunderstanding and mistrust when it comes to gay men as a group.
Andrea Carlo writes “part of the prejudice comes from the misconception that bisexuality contributes to the homophobic notion of homosexuality being a ‘choice’.”
In other words, if you’re a man who can choose to be with either men or women, then why not just choose to be with women? Why not choose to be 'normal'? Why not choose to be not gay?
Explaining this idea further, Gaby Hinsliff writes, “The idea that sexual identity is set in stone has been useful in some ways to the gay community, especially in tackling the offensive idea that homosexuality might somehow be ‘cured’. Parents struggling to deal with their children coming out are often encouraged to accept that sexual preference is just something we are all born with, as immutable as race or age and just as deserving of protection from discrimination.”
Basically, if some of us can make perceived choices about our sexuality, then it invalidates the “born this way” argument. This makes bisexuals the enemy.
More importantly, it threatens Pride parades around the world to find a different Gaga song to play on neverending loop (please, anything but Alejandro!).
There’s an undercurrent of betrayal when it comes to how bisexuals are viewed in the gay community. And that’s on top of the previously mentioned existence denials and toxic assumptions, not mention fetishization.
Comfy in the Closet
Labeling one’s own sexuality isn’t always easy to do, especially with a label that comes with so much baggage.
“According to a Pew Research Center social study in the US, only 12% of bisexual men are out.”
For all of the above reasons (and more), it’s easier for many bisexual men (not to mention our pansexual and sexually fluid brothers) to stay in the closet or to defy labels altogether.
Carlo writes, “As statistics prove that a significantly higher number of bisexual men are in the closet than both bi/lesbian women and gay men, it’s clear society has a problem with male bisexuality.”
This comes about through society’s general lack of understanding about bisexuality in the first place.
And it leaves us just as confused about our identities as everyone else.
In a Vice interview one bisexual man stated, “I knew the word bisexual existed but I didn’t really know enough about it and what that meant and the fact that it didn’t have to be a 50 50 split. And I felt forced to choose and it was easier to identify as straight.”
There is so much at odds with the idea of being a bisexual man, not least of which are the effects of toxic masculinity and the power that it holds over all of us – to be strong, and butch and well, straight.
In my research I came across an article for Time Magazine entitled “Why ‘Mostly Straight’ Men Are a Distinct Sexual Identity.” I’m not here to disagree with an expert or with anyone’s chosen identity. But it seems to me that ‘mostly straight’ is a version of bisexuality, and that these men are likely just trying to avoid taking on the shame (both internal and external) that comes along with this identity.
It Gets Better
Fortunately, there is hope for the future.
Millennials and Gen Z are a lot more open to diverse sexual identities.
In a survey from 2015 the majority of millennials endorsed the idea that sexuality is a scale and that it’s possible to exist somewhere in the middle of heterosexual and homosexual. They were also less likely than other generations to label themselves “completely heterosexual.”
As we become more open and accepting to all kinds of sexual orientations, it seems that men are finally becoming more comfortable with the idea of being openly bisexual.
In a piece for the Good Men Project, Joe Kort, Ph.D. writes “I am encouraged to see that millennials and younger folks, in particular … aren’t boxing themselves in as much as earlier generations. They are far more willing to open up, talk about sexuality in previously forbidden ways, and to experiment.”
As most of reasonable society relaxes about such things, I hope we can get to the point where men can be proud to identify as bisexual, without having to carry all of the baggage that has historically accompanied such a thing.
The Bisexual Paradox
One of the easiest ways for the existence of bi men to be recognized is to have more representation in the media. But paradoxically, the limited representation of bi men in the media is due to the disbelief in the existence of bi men.
So the first step is detangling the idea that we don’t exist.
Those of us with this identity, as well as other marginalized identities, need to have the courage to stand up and demand some recognition for ourselves.
And we need your help to do it.
Bisexual men exist.
Edit: A previous version of this post failed to properly attribute the creation of the #BisexualMenExist hashtag to Vaneet Mehta.