Dane Nelson, a 31-year-old survival instructor, is something of a rarity. Not because he’s a bisexual man, but because he’s out about his sexuality. Recent research from Pew showed that only about a quarter of bisexual people are open about their sexuality, as opposed to 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians. It took years for Nelson to get to a place where he could be open with friends, family, and colleagues. He remembers a particularly painful instance from high school that kept him closeted.
A boy Nelson vaguely knew heard that Nelson was bi and started asking questions about it. “He came over a few times and we watched movies and sort of cuddled. … His friends eventually heard a rumor that I was bi and he stopped talking to me. His friends would shout ‘fag’ at me when I passed them in the hallways. Sometimes they’d throw food at me or step in front of me in lines,” he said. “I didn’t even come close to coming out to another man until I was in my mid-twenties.”
Of course, bisexual women, such as myself, face unique and pervasive challenges as well. But, according to a national survey released in January, bi women are more than twice as likely as bi men to openly identify as bisexual. The cultural visibility of bi women is largely due to hypersexualization and fetishization. But male bisexuality is often seen as nonexistent.
Despite the fact that studies reveal the majority of LGBT people are bisexual, Nelson’s story is not an uncommon one. Bi guys are out there, they just aren’t out. Because male bisexuality is so often erased and plagued by stigma, bi guys are some of the most closeted people in LGBT communities, even in liberal meccas like the Bay Area. An apt example of this stigmatization is how every bi guy I spoke to for this piece (except Nelson) requested anonymity. (Hence, names have been shortened or changed.)
Bisexuality is hardly better understood now than it was one hundred years ago, when the term first came into use. Part of the reason for this misunderstanding is because when we think about bisexuality, we think of stereotypes. A short list of the most pervasive include: Bisexuals don’t exist; we’re responsible for the spread of HIV and other STIs; we can choose to be gay or straight; or that we are actually gay or straight.
Partly because of these stereotypes, research shows that bisexuals suffer from much higher levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidality than any other sexual orientation. They also have more physical health problems, are prone to substance abuse, and engage in riskier behaviors compared to straight, lesbian, and gay people.
What’s driving these health disparities are often the same forces that keep bisexuals fearful and closeted, namely marginalization and societal insistence that an individual must be gay or straight. Indeed, much of the research on bisexuality has focused — and maddeningly continues to focus — on whether bisexuality in men exists. Probably the most well-known study, by J. Michael Bailey, is commonly referred to as: “Straight, Gay, or Lying?”
Seth, a 38-year-old writer and developer, noted how common erasure was in his life. “I was in a gay club dancing and this guy walked up to me and said, ‘You’re so straight.’ Or, recently, when having wine with straight female friends, one of them said, ‘Oh my god, you sounded so gay just now,'” he said. “Society tends to create straight or gay contexts. Since I don’t fit well into either, I’m often rejected by both.”
Another reason bi guys remain closeted is that they fear becoming targets of violence, such as in Nelson’s high school story, and because they don’t want to be mislabeled as gay, or even labeled at all. “Labels are so useful for people, but I really don’t like being labeled,” said Harold, a 39-year-old software engineer. “I have a couple of gay friends who … think they are being helpful to me by letting their friends know that I’m ‘straight.’ We all know that there’s a spectrum, but I wish people internalized that more and realized that it is a reality.”