Understanding The 'B-Word': Embracing The Bisexual Identity
There are millions of women standing in the closet — a closet that's threatening to burst open.
I was 17 when I first developed "feelings" for another woman, but it took me two more years to feel comfortable using the word "bisexual." When I finally confessed this secret to my friends and family, they called my feelings a "phase" and said it would pass over time, which made me feel even more uncertain about my identity and uncomfortable with the idea of bisexuality.
In my college-level Human Sexuality course, my professor asked the class to describe the LGBTQA community and address each of the six commonly used sexual preferences. Only one student in the class of 30 raised their hand. The same ignorance and confusion that caused my friends and family to immediately define bisexuality as a "phase" extends beyond that single identity: Many people today still seem to be uneducated about the gay community and the everyday terminology members of the community use to identify themselves. Many people seem to refrain from more deeply exploring their own sexuality, too.
But the fact is sexual orientation and sexuality are basic parts of the human identity and inevitably factors into our everyday lives. Since that moment in class, I have wondered about my own sexuality — namely about my bisexuality. I've wondered about the cultural stigma that surrounds the word as well as why so many people are afraid of the "b-word" itself.
I’ve heard a variety of reasons as to why many women seem intolerant of the "b-word." A number of women claim they don’t like using any label to identify their sexuality. Some may specifically avoid the bisexual label because they feel it reifies a broader, restrictive gender system. Others privately identify as bisexual because they want to avoid the possibility of strangers’ stereotyping and judging them, while others are not sure if they are "bisexual enough" to claim the name. Others feel that sexual experiences or feelings they had for someone of the same sex was a one-time-only situation.
No matter the specific reason, though, this hesitation proves that "bisexual" is a powerful, weighty word. But due to a lack of understanding, acceptance, and even just recognition of the bisexual identity, many misconceptions persist about what this word actually means.
One of the most common misconceptions I’ve encountered is that bisexuality is just a transitional phase between heterosexuality and homosexuality. First of all, there’s no specific, universal pattern that individuals follow to understand or enact their sexuality. One person may have been attracted to the opposite sex for years before having sexual experiences with someone(s) of the same sex. They may have been "gay" or "queer" throughout high school and then "come out" as bisexual after developing feelings for someone of the opposite sex, while knowing they are still attracted to and have feelings for people of the same sex. They may have always alternated between both, and identify as bisexual. No matter how this understanding solidifies, though, the bottom line is bisexuality is a valid identity all its own for many people, and should not be undermined as a "phase."
Another common misunderstanding is that someone’s bisexual identity has any bearing on their sexual behavior. Far too many people think bisexual individuals are "cheaters," "too scared to fully come out," or are "desperate for attention." Others interpret bisexuality as "sluttiness" — or that someone is inevitably, consistently interested in sex and/or relationships with people of all gender and sexual identities. Some (heterosexual men especially, it seems) equate a woman’s bisexual identity with a potential opportunity to have sex with her and another women at the same time, rather than her autonomous sexual identity. Ultimately, far too many fail to understand that sexuality is separate from one’s sex and/or gender and also separate from how they choose to behave.
Bisexuality has become so stigmatized in our culture that we fail to educate young people about this identity, and just generate even more ignorance and misunderstanding by perpetuating an incorrect definition of the term. I worry that many bisexuals who want to "come out of the closet" and admit their self-identity are therefore scared of the label and worry about society’s conservative or "traditional" preferences for sexual orientation. They feel pressured to either identify as straight or gay, to pick a side. Perhaps this is why bi people still face higher rates of anxiety and depression and have a tendency toward drug and alcohol abuse use, according to a 2016 study by the Journal of Adolescent Health.
But while labels can sometimes be damaging, they can also helpfully represent one’s identity and allow people to get shit done in life. To be clear, I’m not advocating that every individual who identifies as such to loudly call themselves "bisexual." I understand that some people feel stressed when discovering their identity, and therefore navigate the bisexual stigma in the safest way for them. I also understand that finding the "perfect" word to describe one’s sexual identity is a complicated process that can take months, years, and sometimes decades to address. People shouldn’t rush the process and cram themselves into a label that was not made for them. But the bottom line is that bisexuals, though they rightfully belong in the LGBTQA community, are still misunderstood even erased in society.
Words make a difference. Ultimately, we must all do better to try to understand and use them correctly and never make anyone feel like they can’t identify with the word that best describes their identity.
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