Travis has had both boyfriends and girlfriends since high school. But when his coworkers discovered his dating history at a board game night, they told him he couldn’t be bisexual. “Bi men don’t exist,” they said. “You’re just a confused gay guy.” Travis, 34, had brought his girlfriend with him that night, but they started calling her his “roommate” after they found out he was bi.
Santiago got an even harsher reaction when he came out to his family. “‘Bisexual’ is just code for insincere gay man” is how he said one of his relatives reacted. “He didn’t use the term ‘gay man,’” 24-year-old Santiago told me, “but I won’t repeat slurs.”
In the past couple of months, I’ve heard dozens of stories like these from bisexual men who have had their sexual orientations invalidated by family members, friends, partners, and even strangers. Thomas was called a “fence-sitter” by a group of gay men at a bar. Shirodj was told that he was “just gay but not ready to come out of the closet.” Alexis had his bisexuality questioned by a lesbian teacher who he thought would be an ally. Many of these same men have been told that women are “all a little bi” or “secretly bi” but that men can only be gay or straight, nothing else.
In other words, bisexual men are like climate change: real but constantly denied.
A full 2% of men identified themselves as bisexual on a 2016 survey from the Centers for Disease Control, which means that there are at least three million bi guys in the United States alone—a number roughly equivalent to the population of Iowa. (On the same survey, 5.5% of women self-identified as bisexual, which comes out to roughly the same number of people as live in New Jersey.) The probability that an entire state’s worth of people would lie about being attracted to more than one gender is about as close to zero as you can get.
But the idea that only women can be bisexual is a persistent myth, one that has been decades in the making. And prejudice with such deep historical roots won’t disappear overnight.
understand why bisexual men are still being told that their sexual orientation doesn’t exist, we have to go back to the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. That’s when Dr. H. Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams, a cultural studies scholar and co-editor of the anthology Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men, told me that male sexual fluidity got thrown under the bus in the name of gay rights—specifically white, upper-class gay rights.
“One of the byproducts of the gay liberation movement is this…solidifying of the [sexual] binary,” Herukhuti told me, citing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as a pre-Stonewall period of relatively unstigmatized sexual fluidity.
Four decades later, the gay liberation movement created a new type of man—the “modern gay man,” Herukhuti calls him—who was both “different from and similar to” the straight man. As Jillian Weiss, now the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense Fund, wrote in a 2003 review of this same history, “gays and lesbians campaigned for acceptance by suggesting that they were ‘just like you,’ but with the single (but extremely significant exception) of [having] partners of the same sex.” Under this framework, attraction to a single gender was the unifying glue between gay men, lesbians, and straight people—bisexual people were just “confused.”
Bisexual people realized that they would have to form groups and coalitions of their own if they wanted cultural acceptance. But just as bisexual activism was gaining a foothold in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit, and everything changed—especially for bisexual men.
“AIDS forced certain bisexual men out [of the closet], it forced a lot of bisexual men back in, and then it killed off a number of them,” longtime bisexual activist and author Ron Suresha told me.Those deaths hindered the development of male bisexual activism at a particularly critical moment. “A number of men who would have been involved and were involved in the early years of the bi movement died—and they died early and they died quickly,” bisexual writer Mike Syzmanski recalled.
The AIDS crisis also gave rise to one of the most pernicious and persistent stereotypes about bisexual men, namely that they are the “bridge” for HIV transmission between gay men and heterosexual women. As Brian Dodge, a public health researcher at Indiana University, told me, this is a “warped notion” that has “never been substantiated by any real data.” The CDC, too, has debunked the same myth in the specific context of U.S. black communities: No, black men on the “down low” are not primarily responsible for high rates of HIV among black women.
In 2016, bisexual men are still feeling the effects of the virus and the misperceptions around it.
“We’re still underrepresented on the boards of almost all of the national bisexual organizations,” Suresha told me, referring to the fact that women occupy most of the key leadership positions in bisexual activism. And in a new, nationally representative study of attitudes toward bisexual people, Dodge and his research team found that 43% of respondents agreed —at least somewhat—with the statement: “People should be afraid to have sex with bisexual men because of HIV/STD risks.”
For decades, bisexual men have been portrayed—even within the LGBT community—as secretly gay, sexually confused vectors of disease. Is it any wonder that they are still fighting to shed that false image today? It’s hard to convince people that you exist when they barely see you as human.
It’s not that bisexual women have it easy. Both bisexual men and women are much less likely than gay men and lesbians to be out of the closet, with only 28% telling Pew that most of the important people in their life know about their orientation. Collectively, bisexual people also have some of the worst mental health outcomes in the LGBT community and their risk of intimate partner violence is disturbingly high. Bisexual people also face discrimination within the LGBT community while fending off accusations that their orientation excludes non-binary genders. (In response, bisexual educator Robyn Ochs defines “bisexuality” as attraction to “people of more than one sex and/or gender” rather than just to “men and women.”)
And on top of these general problems, bisexual women are routinely hypersexualized, stereotyped as “sluts,” dismissed as “experimenting,” and harassed on dating apps. Their bisexuality is reduced to a spectacle or waved away as a “phase.”
But it is still bisexual men who seem to have their very existence questioned more often.