New Poll: Majority of Bisexuals Stay in the Closet
In June, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that LGBT Americans overwhelmingly feel society has become more accepting of them in the past decade. But buried in the findings is a significant disparity: While 77 percent of gays and 71 percent lesbians said they are out with most of the important people in their lives, only 28 percent of bisexuals said the same. A mere 12 percent of bisexual men said they are out with friends and family.
The poll highlights a gap that speaks not only to different coming out experiences, but also to a community in which bisexuals don't feel as accepted as the acronym might suggest. So in a time of monumental strides toward equality, why do the majority of bisexuals - the largest segment of the LGBT community - stay in the closet?
The answer may be as complex as the identity itself.
"If there's no strong bisexual community and culture to be supported by, it's hard to come out," said Kyle Schickner, a filmmaker and outspoken bisexual activist of 20 years. "If you're a gay teenager and you move to a metropolitan area, it becomes easier to come out because there are so many of you - you have less to lose. Some bisexuals might be in a relationship with the same gender and just find it easier to say they're gay."
Schickner was met with skepticism in college at Rutgers University when he went to join the gay student organization on campus as a bisexual.
"For a lot of gay people, there's this journey of testing the waters by saying you're bisexual before coming out as gay, and the assumption becomes that's everyone's journey," he said. "When I came out as bisexual people said, 'Oh, you'll be gay in five years.' Well, I'm 45 now and I'm as bisexual as ever."
He thinks the poll, which surveyed respondents online, highlights truths he and other bisexual activists have known for years.
"The coming out process is very different for bisexuals," he said. "I probably have to come out every day of my life whether it's to gays, lesbians or straight people."
Constantly coming out and explaining one's identity can get exhausting, and that exhaustion means some bisexuals would rather not even bother. Bisexual men and women not only have to worry about the judgments from their straight friends, but also what their gay and lesbians will think of them as well. They are often stereotyped as really being just gay, stuck in a phase, confused, promiscuous or unfaithful.
"The people setting the agenda in the LGBT community are mostly gay or lesbian and so the bisexual thing becomes secondary," Schickner said. "There's still sort of distrust or anger towards bisexuals because they have the ability to enjoy a lot of straight privileges that gay and lesbians don't enjoy. I think there's a resentment and sort of a fear. And there's always an anecdote about getting screwed over by someone who was bisexual and scapegoating bisexuality as the reason the relationship failed."
He wonders if another reason people aren't coming out as bisexual is because they're coming out as newer terms like fluid, polysexual or pansexual.
"We haven't defined what it means to be bisexual, really," he said. "And there's been a lack of really strong leadership in the bi community since the late '90s."
Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Boston-based Bisexual Resource Center, says the bisexual identity is often met with stereotyping and stigma.
"I think that because there’s been a lot more education and cultural investigation into what it means to be gay or lesbian, when a person comes out as gay or lesbian, there’s just a lot more understanding; it’s not as much as a surprise."
She says too often, bisexuals are defined by who they are with, not who they are.
"What’s very important to bisexuals is the feeling that our identity is about something that is within us; not about who we are with. That’s kind of a complicated thing for people to take in and appreciate."
Forty percent of the Pew poll respondents identified as bisexual, but Ruthstrom wonders if that number is accurate because a number of bisexuals "pass" as gay or lesbian. Indeed, while some gay people find it easier to come out as bisexual initially, some bisexuals actually find it easier to come out as gay.
"There are a lot of bisexual women who pass as lesbians and I always wonder if, when they’re taking a survey, they say that they’re lesbian or bisexual," Ruthstrom said.
There are also bisexuals on the other end who live as straight.
John Craig has counseled closeted bisexual men through his Washington, D.C.-based phone counseling program for more than 20 years. His work has been featured on CNN and the "Oprah Winfrey Show."
"People I’ve worked with will often have a reasonable amount of secrecy in their lives," he said. "Many of them have been married, and most of them have disclosed to their wives even before they got married that they have had attractions to men. A lot of times after marriage, they didn’t want to bring the topic up again, then years later they begin to want to act on those attractions."
Getting an accurate sample of the population for surveys, therefore, becomes harder.
"You could argue with statistics forever, but if you look at the history of the ancient world, in Greece and Rome, it is absolutely clear that bisexuality was the norm."
The Pew poll comes two years after the San Francisco Human Rights Commission released a groundbreaking study on bisexuality called the "Bisexuality Invisibility Report," which found that bisexuals face stereotypes, discrimination and have higher rates of depression and health problems.
Ruthstrom thinks the Pew poll, like the report, shows that LBGT service organizations aren’t doing enough to reach out to the bi community and identify its needs.
"I hope we can continue to look at data so that we can get more awareness, understand the reasons why people don’t come out, and the ways we can improve outreach," she said. "To me, looking at demographics and the high percentage of bisexual people earning lower incomes, those kinds of things are very important for us to keep an eye on."