23 September 2020
Today, September 23 is Celebrate Bisexual Visibility day. This day is part of a week-long celebration of Bisexuality and championed by GLAAD who have been advocating for positive celebrations of Bisexual Visibility internationally since the early 1990s(1).
To recognise this significant day in our LGBTIQ calendar Rainbow Health Victoria spoke to ARCSHS Dr Jen Power, who has been researching the experiences of Bi+ people living in Australia with Dr Julia Taylor for the past 4 years.
RHV: What do we know about the mental health and wellbeing of Bi+ people living in Australia?
JP: Different studies have shown that people who identify as bisexual report poor mental health relative to their lesbian and gay peers(2). This can look like higher levels of mental distress, suicidality and rates and mental illness diagnosis. What we know less about is the mental health of people who don’t necessarily identify as bisexual or pansexual or Bi+ but for who have bisexual attraction or experience. Unfortunately, that doesn’t get asked in a lot of surveys.
In 2018 we did a large survey in Australia of people who identified as bisexual or who reported bisexual attraction or behaviour (or all 3)(3). Over 2000 people responded which made it the largest study of Bi+ people at the time. That study was designed to look at whether experiences of being excluded or stigma or biphobia were predictors of psychological distress. We found that what predicted higher levels of psychological distress was a higher sense of internalised biphobia - a feeling that your own bisexuality was bad or wrong. Other factors included a perceived lack of support from their partner for their sexuality and being in a relationship incorrectly perceived by others to be a heterosexual relationship between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman (4).
RHV: Can you tell us a bit more about why people who are in perceived heterosexual relationships were more likely to report experience high levels of psychological distress?
JP: We did a follow up qualitative study with this group of people to explore this a bit more, that has yet to be published. What we found from that study was there was a lot of tension around authenticity and disclosure. These people described how they were always being seen as heterosexual when they were with their partner and that they always had to go through the rigmarole of choosing whether to out themselves and all that comes with that, such as the risk of how people are going to react, hostility or simply the awkwardness of that conversation.
People also felt a pressure to disclose to be authentic in who they are. You might think that “getting to hide behind a perceived heterosexual relationship” or to “pass” as heterosexual might buffer you from discrimination or homophobia but it doesn’t. There is this tension around authenticity and wanting to be a part of the queer community. “Passing” leaves people feeling disingenuous or takes them further away from community and the protection and sense of belonging that community can offer. There was also tension for some people around outing themselves in the context of their relationship where it wasn’t always appropriate. For example, their partner might not always want them to, or their families didn’t know, and they were worried if the response was negative that their partner might be affected. People were often trying to protect their partner or their kids from these reactions. It’s a lot of emotional work to be always navigating those decisions.
RHV: What would the impact of increased celebration of BI+ visibility mean for the mental health and wellbeing of Bi+ people?
JP: If you think about the history of lesbian, gay and trans communities, and the history of queer activism, Pride has always been so central. Bi+ people have been left out of that narrative to some extent.
Feeling negatively about your sexuality is connected to a poorer sense of wellbeing. I always think that Pride is about recognising that these feelings are the world’s problem, not your problem. Bi-visibility is about having more conversations about this, celebrating being bisexual and belonging to a community. That’s the essence of Pride, I think.
- DOUGLAS FILM STIRS FURY. (1992). Sun-herald (Sydney, N.S.W.), p. 27.
- Leonard, W., Lyons, A., & Bariola, E. (2015). A closer look at Private Lives 2: Addressing the mental
health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians. Monograph Series
No. 103. The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University: Melbourne
- See Yoshino, K. (2000). The epistemic contract of bisexual erasure. Stanford Law Review, 52(2), 353-461.
- Taylor, Julia, Power, Jennifer, Smith, Elizabeth, & Rathbone, Mark. (2019). Bisexual mental health: Findings from the 'Who I Am' study. Australian Journal of General Practice., 48(3), 138-144.