Bisexual+ people often feel like the protagonist of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. It feels like we are standing at a fork in the road, with two paths before us, one leading to the life of a heterosexual, the other taking us to the life of a homosexual. We are told this multiple times by our family, our friends, the queer community and mainstream society. We must make a choice, they say. But this notion of “choice” is what I believe lies at the root of all our problems. It is a false dilemma.
Both of these paths are traps.
Bisexuality+ is an umbrella term inclusive of anyone who experiences attraction to more than one gender. And no, it does not mean “50 percent gay and 50 percent straight” as many still believe. To say that bisexuality+ implies a choice, is to do a great disservice to the legacy of Chinnu Sulfikar whose death just some months ago brought the practice of conversion therapy to mainstream conversation. Her parents forced her into conversion therapy—a dangerous, illegal and inhuman practice that targets LGBTQ youth and seeks to change their sexual or gender identities—after she came out to them as bisexual.
I myself tried to make that “choice” and pretended to be straight for as long as I could. But that was essentially like inflicting emotional violence on myself. The pain of living a lie reached a crescendo and I eventually came out to my teenage boyfriend amid sobs. Even though my path to self-acceptance was paved with anxiety and trauma, I internalised the message that I had some sort of privilege over other queer people, because I could “go back” to the straight life.
There are bisexual+ people who come to the queer community finally expecting acceptance and understanding. In its place though, they often are faced with biphobia—a dislike or prejudice against bisexual people. Biphobia can range from invalidating the legitimacy of bisexuality as a real sexual orientation, stereotyping bisexual people, to perpetrating physical and sexual violence against them. The biphobia comes from both, straight people who think bisexuality is just an excuse for “keeping options open”, and from the queer community who often think we are “queer enough” only if we’re in same-sex relationships. In a way then, many bisexual people step out of the straight closest and find themselves to then be in a gay closet.
It is this double discrimination from both homosexuals and heterosexuals that’s often the cause for bisexual people’s poor mental health. A study found that 77.6 percent of bisexuals had contemplated suicide as compared to 11.7 percent of the general population.
Biphobia usually begins with our mind but it gradually wreaks havoc over our body. Bisexual+ people suffer more often from gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, and obesity than monosexuals. Additionally, bisexual+ men are less likely than gay men to be screened for HIV which could lead to undiagnosed or accidental transmission. The social isolation and psychological distress caused by biphobia leads people to engage in sexually risky behaviours, substance use and the avoidance of prevention services, thus increasing HIV/STI risk.
“I always pick and choose different parts of myself I can share with different people,” says Harjeet*, an HIV+ divorced man, who tells me he has never completely been himself with anyone. “I never told my ex-wife that I am bisexual+. I didn’t want to lose her because of it.” Harjeet is open about his sexuality with his gay friends but they are not exactly supportive. “They say that bisexuals just want a ‘hole’. They say I must pick a side.” When he had tested positive for HIV back in 2018, he’d seriously contemplated suicide. Thankfully, the HIV+ community rallied alongside him and made him believe he can have a long, healthy life.
Part of the reason behind bisexual people suffering from the laundry list of physical and mental ailments is also “minority stress”—the excess stress that people from stigmatised social categories experience as a result of their social position. It is the reason lesbian and bisexual+ women are 27 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than heterosexual women.
However, such research does not include non-binary and transgender people. “Quite a few times, female friends distance themselves from me after I say that I’m pansexual,” says Yasha Juneja, a 25-year-old non-binary person with diabetes. “It doesn't matter if I say they are not my type. It’s as if they are so straight that even being close to a non-straight person would stain them.” Peer rejection has stuck with Juneja like a thorn in their side. Such panphobia, along with gender dysphoria, has deeply harmed their mental health, and Juneja too has struggled with suicidal thoughts.
When a bisexual+ person is transgender, their risk for poor health—often resulting from substance use, depression and suicidal thoughts—rises higher. “Growing up, I battled an eating disorder along with depression and suicidal thoughts,” says Daman Halder, a pansexual trans man who is hurt more by transphobia than panphobia. However, even within the transgender community, his sexuality is not always welcome. “At a meeting of activists, a trans woman had asked me about my romantic interests. When I came out as pansexual, she reacted with shock, saying, ‘You’re a man so you should act like a man. Why do you want to fluctuate?’”
It is interesting how biphobia morphs with the intersectionalities of its target’s identity. Noor*, like many bisexual+ women, says that straight men think of threesomes when she comes out to them. Data shows the grim consequence of this stereotype. Nearly half of all bisexual+ women experience rape and three-quarters experience sexual violence. Researchers say its cause is the hypersexualisation of bisexual+ women, along with biphobia.
One of the reasons Noor’s ex, a lesbian, left her was her sexual orientation. “She said bisexual+ women can't be trusted and they ultimately choose men due to familial pressure,” Noor says. Her ex preferred a lesbian over her. Noor is prone to self-harm, and sees a therapist to manage her anxiety.
All of these experiences lead to an inner turmoil and internalised biphobia. Harjeet is one of many who’d like to wish his bisexuality+ away. “I think bisexuality is the problem, not biphobia,” he says to me at the end of our conversation. “If I wasn’t bisexual, I’d be able to choose one path.”
I ask Harjeet to imagine a third road in the woods. What if he didn’t have to perform a “gay side” with his gay friends and a “straight side” with his straight family? He pauses. When Harjeet was a teenager, his grandfather had caught him with a boy on their terrace. The incident had inspired such shame in him that he had run a high fever back then. “Maybe if my grandfather had not scolded me, I wouldn’t have felt that shame. Maybe I would’ve told my ex-wife about my sexuality.” Harjeet tells me how this is the first time he has shared all parts of his story with someone, and that this has been therapeutic for him too. “Rejection teaches you to lie,” he tells me. “Rejection teaches you to reject yourself.”
*Names changed for anonymity