by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
At a time when Gay rights have made major progress, and Gays and Lesbians have become far more willing to come out, the vast majority of Bisexuals are still in the closet, a Pew Research Center survey has revealed.
Only 28 percent of Bisexuals said most or all of the important people in their lives knew about their sexual orientation, compared to 71 percent of Lesbians and 77 percent of Gay men, Pew found.
The numbers were especially small among Bisexual men: Only 12 percent said they were out to that degree, compared to one-third of Bisexual women who said the same.
The Los Angeles Times recently interviewed closeted Bisexuals who said they had avoided coming out because they didn't want to deal with misconceptions that Bisexuals were indecisive or incapable of monogamy - stereotypes that exist among straights, Gays, and Lesbians alike.
Those stereotypes make some reluctant to use the word, even after they openly acknowledge having same-sex attractions.
Laura McGinnis, communications director for the Trevor Project, an LGBT youth suicide prevention group, told the Times she was 29 or 30 before she would readily share that she is Bisexual or actively correct someone who thought otherwise.
'I hated the label because the assumption is that you're sleeping around,' said McGinnis, who is now raising a child with her wife.
Such assumptions could make being out at work especially difficult: Only 11 percent of Bisexual people polled by Pew said most of their closest co-workers knew about their sexual orientation, compared to 48 percent of Gay men and 50 percent of Lesbians.
Bisexuals were also less likely than Gay men and Lesbians to say their workplaces were accepting of them, Pew found.
In a separate study published in the Journal of Bisexuality, half of Bisexual people surveyed said their Gay and straight co-workers misunderstand Bisexuality.
Denise Penn, vice president of the American Institute of Bisexuality, a nonprofit that funds research, said, 'Bisexuals are thought to be confused, opportunistic, and unable to make commitments - and those aren't the kinds of things you want to see in an employee.'
Some Bisexuals suggest that within the LGBT community, they are often seen as more privileged than Gays and Lesbians because they are able to duck discrimination by entering into straight relationships.
Interestingly, more Bisexuals are in relationships with people of the opposite sex than with the same sex, Pew found, and they are less likely than Gay men or Lesbians to have weathered slurs or attacks, been rejected by friends or family, or treated unfairly at work, the survey showed.
But according to the Times article, researchers and activists say Bisexuals face another set of frustrations, as they are sometimes shunned by the Gay and Lesbian community and the straight world alike.
'Bisexual women complain they are leered at by straight men and rejected by some Lesbians as sexual 'tourists' who will abandon them for men,' said Emily Alpert, author of the July 21 feature about the Pew study. 'Bisexual men, in turn, struggle to persuade men and women alike that they aren't just Gay men with one foot in the closet. Both are stereotyped as oversexed swingers who cannot be trusted.'
'Women would say [to me], 'I don't date your kind,' ' said Mimi Hoang, who helped form Bisexual groups in Los Angeles. Such reactions left her frustrated. 'I had nothing against Lesbians. I thought I could find camaraderie with people who were also sexual minorities.'
RISK OF ISOLATION
Questions of prejudice aside, Bisexual activists lament that the 'B' is often overlooked by LGBT organizations that provide little programming specifically for them. Pew found that Bisexuals - especially men - were less likely to have belonged to such groups. More than half said they have only a few LGBT friends or none at all.
Researchers believe such isolation may have dire results.
According to the Times, some studies have found that Bisexual people are at greater risk of emotional woes than people who are Gay, Lesbian, or straight. Bisexual women are more likely to binge-drink and suffer depression, a George Mason University study found.
In addition, a Kent State University study of Bisexual women found that they were more likely than straight or Lesbian women to harm themselves or endure suicidal thoughts. Other studies have also cited higher risks for Bisexual men.
'I think these problems are coming from two places,' said Northwestern University human sexuality researcher Allen Rosenthal. 'The absence of a Bisexual community and the psychological stress of being in the closet.'
Activists say Bisexuals have two closets - one straight, one Gay.
'While a Gay man might casually mention his husband, or a Lesbian might out herself by talking about her girlfriend, Bisexuals are often wrongly assumed to be straight or Gay depending on whom they are with,' said the Times. 'Spelling out that they are Bisexual can be misconstrued as rejecting a current partner or declaring themselves up for anything.'
NOT JUST A 'PHASE'
Bisexuality is a real thing, says a University of Utah research project. Though 62 percent of Gay men once identified as Bisexual, nearly as many Bisexual men - 56 percent - had once said they were Gay, professor Lisa Diamond found. She also says more women have switched from calling themselves Lesbian to calling themselves Bisexual than vice versa.
However, studies show Bisexuals rival or exceed Gays and Lesbians in number. Even still, experts say there is still little known about Bisexuals because studies often group them with Gay men and Lesbians.
Younger people seem more at ease with Bisexuality, adopting alternative labels such as 'pansexual' or shrugging off labels completely, McGinnis said.
In fact, Northwestern University researcher Brian Mustanski said unlike earlier studies, his research showed Bisexual youth were less likely to suffer mental disorders than Gay and Lesbian youth, which is a sign of growing recognition of sexual variability.
It is no secret that during puberty, a lot of youth are still exploring their sexuality and some are not sure if they are Gay, Lesbian, straight or Bisexual.
Years later, some identify as straight and although they did have Gay or Lesbian sex a few times, they have a hard time admitting it - if they ever admit it at all, studies suggest.
HARD TO QUANTIFY
Estimates of sexual minorities are problematic not only because it is hard to get accurate information, but also because it is difficult to define what same-sex attraction is. Do you include in the numbers everyone who has had a same-sex thought, or just those who have had a homosexual experience? How many experiences or thoughts qualify?
Alfred C. Kinsey conducted research on human sexuality in the late 1940s and early 1950s and published his findings in two landmark volumes, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Kinsey ranked his subjects on a seven-point scale with exclusive heterosexuality at zero and exclusive homosexuality at six. Among 25-year-old males in the United States, he claimed that 79 percent were at zero (exclusively heterosexual) and 2.9 percent were at six (exclusively homosexual).
He further claimed that 10 percent of white American males between the ages of 16 and 55 were almost exclusively homosexual for at least three years; eight percent were exclusively homosexual for at least three years; and four percent were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives, after the onset of adolescence.
His findings showed that 10 percent of the males had had seven or more homosexual experiences. Further, he claimed that as many as 37 percent had some kind of homosexual experience after adolescence.
MORE RECENT FINDINGS
Kinsey's research methodologies have been questioned. Although he used a large number of subjects (he took sexual histories on more than 18,000 people and used data from 5,000 men and 6,000 women), he did not use methods of random sampling that scientists commonly use today. His subjects came from boarding houses, college fraternities, prisons, and wherever else he could find them (as many as 20-25 percent had been in prison, and five percent may have been male prostitutes). Still, Kinsey's project remains to this day the most comprehensive study on sexual fluidity.
In 1993, a large study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that of sexually active men aged 20-39, only 2.3 percent had any same-gender sexual activity and only 1.1 percent reported exclusive homosexual contact during the last 10 years.
One of the largest and most scientifically based modern surveys was concluded in 1994 by academics at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. They asked 210 pages of questions of 3,432 Americans ages 18 to 59 and published their findings in a book, The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2000). On the subject of homosexuality, this survey found that 2.7 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women had had sex in the past year with someone of the same gender. In addition, 7.1 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women had had sex with someone of the same gender since puberty.
In addition, the study found that 6.2 percent of male and 4.4 percent of female respondents said they were still sexually attracted to people of the same gender.
The survey also found larger percentages of sexual minorities in urban areas. The 12 largest cities in the United States showed more than nine percent of men identifying themselves as homosexual, as opposed to only one percent in rural areas.
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