The Mental Health Repercussions of Identifying as a Bisexual Woman
Bisexual women are often erased from or rejected by both dominant society and the LGBT community.
By the time I came out as bisexual (later coming to identify as queer), I had bought wholesale into the “it gets better” narrative of coming out: that is, that coming out would imbue me with a sense of pride and community, even when things got difficult. I was excited about the potential of solidarity and the refreshing sense of transparency and openness that many people say they experience after publicly owning their sexual identity.
I certainly didn’t expect things to be perfect, or for the transition from closeted to “out” to be smooth. I fully expected to experience discrimination from dominant society. What I wasn’t prepared for were the misunderstandings from both my male and female partners, and from the queer community. Bisexuality is still a conundrum for many, and the inherent duality and multiplicity of a pansexual, queer, or bisexual identity is often read with suspicion or fear. I wasn’t prepared for uncomfortable silences when I admitted to being attracted to people of all genders, or out-and-out questioning of my identity, and jealousy from both male and female partners who assumed I would cheat.
Because I present as feminine, I was often accused of being “secretly straight” or “going through a phase” by the very people who had first embraced me when I came out as queer. I felt an overwhelming, nagging sense of rejection and loneliness, and also found myself being wholly defined by my partners. To have my entire identity and the public perception of my sexual orientation revolve around my current partner—even during a fling or casual relationship—meant that I was overly dependent on my partners for an abiding sense of self and a connection to my own community.
Since being monogamously married to a cis man, I’ve struggled to retain my sense of queer identity. I lost some of my queer friends altogether, and straight friends and colleagues have asked me why I “went back to being straight” or “ended up not being gay”—though I’d never identified as gay to begin with. This taught me, too, that despite my consistent public ownership of my queer/bisexual identity, my prior female partners had led to my being read as “gay” by straight acquaintances and coworkers, no matter how I identified.
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As it turns out, this is a pervasive feeling for many other people like me. Members of the LGBTQ community are widely known to experience poorer mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and suicide, than people who identify as cisgender and heterosexual. Researchers agree that these issues are closely related to the experiences of discrimination, rejection, and isolation shared by many members of the queer community.
There is a growing body of evidence, however, to suggest that bisexual individuals, and bisexual women in particular, experience poorer mental health outcomes than the monosexual (i.e., straight and gay) population. I, myself, have struggled with anxiety and depression. A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that young bisexual women score significantly higher on rates of suicidal thoughts and behavior than do their lesbian and heterosexual peers. Meanwhile, a British study found that bisexual women were likelier to develop disordered eating, depression, and anxiety than lesbians and heterosexual women, and were also likelier to self-harm.
Researchers believe that this disparity is due to a number of factors that specifically affect the bisexual population. Trauma may play a role in bisexual women’s increased vulnerability to psychological distress. Bisexual women are likelier than both heterosexual and lesbian women to experience sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and other forms of abuse, and both lesbian and bisexual women are likelier than straight women to have experienced childhood trauma.
Moreover, the double discrimination—or “biphobia”—experienced by many bisexuals means that they are often erased from or rejected by both dominant society and the LGBT community, as well as many media representations of queerness. “Bisexual individuals have been found to be rejected by gay and lesbian communities as being infiltrators or imposters,” says Joye Swan, professor and chair of the department of psychological and social sciences at Woodbury University and co-author of the forthcoming book, Bisexuality: Theories, Research, and Recommendations for the Invisible Sexuality. She adds, “Without an ‘out’ community and with a cultural suspicion that one’s orientation is a myth, bisexual individuals, even in the age of the internet, find themselves feeling alone.”
Both internalized doubts about the stability of a bisexual identity and misogynistic attitudes towards bisexuality in women—in particular as a male-driven sexual fantasy rather than a “true” orientation—contribute to bisexual women’s psychological distress, says Massachusetts-based mental health counselor and sex therapist Stephen Duclos. “Although we can consciously affirm the lives of most other gender diverse and sexually diverse persons, bisexuality too often is seen as indecision or self-serving rather than orientation,” he adds. “There is much less of an affirmation of this form of sexual orientation. Both men and women are doubtful. Isn’t everyone bisexual? Well, no. Bisexuality is no more a choice than being gay or trans. And bisexuality is stable over time, at least as stable as straight or gay orientations.”
It’s important, Swan says, for mental health clinicians to be aware of and educated about the unique stigma and erasure faced by many bisexuals in order to effectively and respectfully treat them. “For example, many practitioners are unaware of the unique dual stigma of bisexuality or understand bisexuality on a level that would allow them to anticipate how the client’s orientation leads to isolation and loneliness,” she says.
Perhaps the most clinically significant factor in this health disparity, however, is loneliness. Many bisexual women express feelings of isolation. Feelings of “outsiderness” are pervasive and painful, and heavily contribute to the potential for depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. While these feelings are partially resolved for many gay individuals in local communities, this resolution is sometimes less linear or complete for bisexual, queer, and pansexual individuals, who might not feel that they “fit” in either larger society or smaller gay communities. “There is a stigma associated with bisexuality, from both the heterosexual and homosexual community (although we see this might be slowly changing," notes Silvia M. Dutchevici, New York-based psychotherapist, founder of the Critical Therapy Center and former executive director of Queens Pride House. "Second, bisexual women and men lack a supportive system as they are often outsiders in both heterosexual and homosexual spaces.”
Resolving this loneliness, researchers say, by building more accepting community spaces and educating clinicians about all sexual minority groups, is the primary key to overcoming the disproportionate mental health issues suffered by many bisexual women.
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- mental illness
- women's health
- sexual orientation