WHAT IS BISEXUALITY? WHO IS BISEXUAL?
By Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse
WHAT IS BISEXUALITY?
Many people are 100% gay or lesbian, and are drawn sexually and
emotionally only to partners of the same sex. Others are completely
heterosexual, bonding in sexual and intimate relationships only with
people of another sex. But what about everybody else? A significant
percentage of people do not fit neatly into either of these categories,
because they experience sexual and emotional attractions and feelings for
people of different genders at some point during their lives. For lack
of a better term, they are called bisexuals, although many people prefer
to call themselves "pansexual," "non-preferential," "sexually fluid,"
"ambisexual," or "omni-sexual."
The Kinsey scale of zero to six was developed by sex researchers to
describe sexual orientation as a continuum. Heterosexual people are at
zero on the scale, gay and Lesbian people are at six at the other end
of the scale, and everyone in between, from one to five, is bisexual.
People who fall at one or two on the scale have primarily heterosexual
sexual and affectional relationships and desires, but have some
attraction and experiences with same -sex partners as well. People at
three on the scale are approximately equally attracted to both men and
women. People at four and five on the Kinsey scale choose primarily
same-sex partners, but are not completely gay or lesbian and have some
heterosexual tendencies and relationships as well.
WHO IS BISEXUAL?
As you can see, there is no simple definition of bisexuality, and
bisexual people are a very diverse group. There are several theories
about different models of bisexual behavior. J. R. Little identifies at
least 13 types of bisexuality, as defined by sexual desires and
experiences. They are:
- Alternating bisexuals:
- may have a relationship with a man, and
then after that relationship ends, may choose a female partner for a
subsequent relationship, and many go back to a male partner next.
- Circumstantial bisexuals:
- primarily heterosexual, but will
choose same sex partners only in situations where they have no access to
other-sex partners, such as when in jail, in the military, or in a
- Concurrent relationship bisexuals:
- have primary relationship
with one gender only but have other casual or secondary relationships
with people of another gender at the same time.
- Conditional bisexuals:
- either straight or gay/lesbian, but will
switch to a relationship with another gender for financial or career gain
or for a specific purpose, such as young straight males who become gay
prostitutes or lesbians who get married to men in order to gain
acceptance from family members or to have children.
- Emotional bisexuals:
- have intimate emotional relationships with
both men and women, but only have sexual relationships with one gender.
- Integrated bisexuals:
- have more than one primary relationship
at the same time, one with a man and one with a woman.
- Exploratory bisexuals:
- either straight or gay/lesbian, but have
sex with another gender just to satisfy curiosity or "see what it's
- Hedonistic bisexuals:
- primarily straight or gay/lesbian but
will sometimes have sex with another gender primarily for fun or purely
- Recreational bisexuals:
- primarily heterosexual but engage in gay
or lesbian sex only when under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
- Isolated bisexuals:
- 100% straight or gay/lesbian now but has
had at one or more sexual experience with another gender in the past.
- Latent bisexuals:
- completely straight or gay lesbian in behavior
but have strong desire for sex with another gender, but have never acted
- Motivational bisexuals:
- straight women who have sex with other
women only because a male partner insists on it to titillate him.
- Transitional bisexuals:
- temporarily identify as bisexual while
in the process of moving from being straight to being gay or lesbian, or
going from being gay or lesbian to being heterosexual.
Many of these people might not call themselves bisexual, but because they
are attracted to and have relationships with both men and women, they are
in fact bisexual.
While literally millions of people are bisexual, most keep their sexual
orientation secret, so bisexual people as a group are nearly invisible in
society. Gay men and lesbian women have long recognized the need to join
together, create community, and to organize politically. Long years of
hard work have led to significant gains in political and human rights, as
well as a visible and thriving gay and lesbian community. Bisexual
people have been much slower to come out of the closet, create community,
and form political and social networks to gain visibility and political
clout. Many bisexual people have spent decades working in gay and
lesbian organizations, and in recent years, bisexuals have become more
accepted as part of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community.
However, the rigid dichotomy between gay and straight has caused many
bisexuals to feel alienated and rejected by gay men and lesbian women,
and in recent years many independent bisexual political and social
groups have sprung up.
Many bisexual people complain that they feel like outsiders in both the
straight and gay/lesbian worlds, and that they can't fit in anywhere,
feeling isolated and confused. Studies have shown that bisexual people
suffer from social isolation even more than gay men or lesbians because
they lack any community where they can find acceptance and role models.
Many gay men feel that bisexual men are really gay, that they are just in
denial about being Gay, and that they should "just get over it." Many
straight men are homophobic and hate and fear both bisexual and gay men,
often victimizing them with harassment and physical violence. Many
straight women reject bisexual men out of misguided fears that they have
AIDS, and admonish them to "stop sitting on the fence and make up their
minds." Bisexual women are often distrusted by lesbians for "sleeping
with the enemy," hanging onto heterosexual privileges through
relationships with men, and betraying their allegiance to women and
feminism. Straight women often reject bisexual women out of fear they
will make sexual overtures and try to "convert" them to being bisexual.
Both the straight and gay/lesbian communities seem to have only two
possible models of bisexuality, neither of which represents bisexual
people accurately. The first is the "transitional model" of bisexuality,
believing that all bisexuals are actually gay or lesbian but are just on
the way to eventually coming out as gay. The other is the "pathological
model", that bisexuals are neurotic or mentally unstable because they are
in conflict trying to decide whether they are straight or gay/lesbian,
and that they just can't make a decision. Both models see bisexuality as
a temporary experience or a "phase" born out of confusion rather than an
authentic sexual orientation equally as valid as heterosexuality or
homosexuality. Some people see bisexuality as inherently subversive
because it blurs the boundaries, confronting both heterosexuals and gay
men and lesbian women with sexual ambiguity. As a result, bisexuality
challenges concepts of sexuality, traditional relationship and family
structures, monogamy, gender, and identity. Bisexuals cannot conform to
the ethics of either the gay or straight world or they would not be
bisexual. Instead they must re-invent personal ethics and values for
themselves, and create responsible lifestyles and relationships that
serve their needs even though they don't fit anyone else's rules.
Some researchers have note that being bisexual is in some ways similar to
being bi-racial. Mixed-race persons generally don't feel comfortable or
accepted by people of either ethnic group, feeling that they don't belong
or fit in anywhere, as their existence challenges the very concept of
race. Like bisexual people, they spend most of their lives moving
between two communities that don't really understand or accept them.
Like biracial people, bisexual people must struggle to invent their own
identities to correspond to their own experience. Forming a bisexual
identity helps bisexual people to structure, to make sense of , and to
give meaning and definition to their reality.
STAGES OF BISEXUAL IDENTITY
For most bisexuals, there are at least four steps or stages to fully
acknowledging and becoming comfortable with their identities as
- Confusion over sexual orientation.
Most bisexual people start out feeling very confused about their
attraction towards people of both sexes, questioning their own reality,
and wondering "Is something wrong with me/"Some spend their entire
lives in this stage, hiding their sexual orientation, feeling isolated
and alone with the inner turmoil over their "dual attractions. Many go
through life identifying as straight or gay/lesbian in order to be
accepted and make sense of their sexual orientation. Because their own
experience does not conform to either community, they feel intense
external pressure to choose one and identify with it. Without any
language to frame their own reality, and no visible role models or
community available to them, bisexual people must have sufficient
self-confidence and belief in their own identity in order to eventually
transcend this stage.
- Discovery of the bisexual label and choosing to identify as bisexual.
Almost all bisexual people acknowledge that discovering the label
"bisexual" was pivotal in understanding and accepting their sexual
orientation. Most experience extreme relief when they hear the word
"bisexual" for the first time, because they finally have a word that
mirrors their experience and feelings. For some, the negative
stereotypes of bisexuals as "promiscuous" "fence sitters," neurotic, or
vectors of AIDS prevent them from identifying with the label or claiming
it for themselves, but most agree that it comes closer than any other
language to describing their lives. Instead of rejecting the label, many
bisexuals invent their own definition and create bisexual lifestyles that
fit their individual lives.
- Settling into and maintaining a bisexual identity.
For many bisexual people, this step is the most difficult.
Intellectually, they feel good about being bisexual, but emotionally,
they experience extreme conflict living in the real world as bisexual.
Often scorned by family and friends and rejected by spouses or potential
partners for being bisexual, they find that to develop and maintain a
bisexual identity requires inner strength, self-reliance, confidence, and
independence. Many overcome these obstacles by forming their own
community, finding accepting friends and lovers, and staying out of the
closet despite the consequences.
- Transforming adversity.
For most bisexuals, coming out and staying out of the closet is an
on-going process which must be repeated with every new social situation,
workplace, friend, and lover. Many see this process as the most
important form of political action, creating visible role models and a
cohesive bisexual community. Because most bisexuals have suffered
through the first three stages alone and in silence, they want to make it
easier for other bisexuals to recognize and embrace their sexual
orientation without years of inner turmoil and loneliness. Many also get
involved in bisexual political organizations as a way to increase
bisexual visibility and promote bisexuality as a viable identity. Just
as gay men and lesbians were only able to win some rights through
fighting in both the social and political arenas, bisexuals will only win
political and human rights through coming out of the closet and
developing political clout.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
Does any of this sound familiar? Are you struggling with ambivalence or
confusion over your sexual orientation? Or are you ready to embrace a
bisexual orientation? Are you seeking community to share your developing
identity with others? If so, reach out for support now. Check out one
of the many bisexual and questioning support groups listed on the back of
this pamphlet, to find a safe place to express your feelings and meet
others who are going through similar experiences. One to one counseling
or therapy can also be helpful in sorting out feelings and gaining
clarity and self-confidence. Be careful to seek out a non-judgmental
therapist who is supportive of bisexuality and has expertise in bisexual
issues. And joining bisexual social or political groups is also a great
way to see visible role models and to allow your bisexual identity to
evolve in a way that fits you. and last, but certainly not least, there
are now many excellent books on bisexuality which may help you understand
and fully embrace your sexual orientation.
BISEXUAL RESOURCES IN THE BAY AREA
Political and social organizations:
- Bay Area Bisexual Network (BABN) (415)-703-7977
Information, social groups and events, political action, sponsors
"Fencesitter's Lounge" dance parties for bisexuals, publishes "Anything
That Moves," the magazine for the card-carrying bisexual.
- Bi-Pol (415)-821-3534
Political action and advocacy organization
- Bi-Friendly (415)-703-7977, box 4
Social group which holds discussion/support groups in SF, East Bay,
Marin, San Jose, Palo Alto, and Santa Cruz; sponsors social events,
parties, and trips, and publishes monthly newsletter listing all bisexual
events in the Bay Area.
Support Groups/Discussion Groups for Bisexuals:
- Pacific Center For Human Growth (Berkeley) (510)-548-8283
- Rainbow Community Center (Pleasant Hill) (510)-927-8705
- Bi-Friendly East Bay (Berkeley) (415)-703-7977, box 4
- SF Women's Bi Group (415)-775-2620
- 3 x 3 Bi People of Color Caucus (415)-703-7977, ext. 3
- Bi Men of Color Group (510)-540-0869
- Bi Men's Rap Group (510)-658-0192
- BLUR for bisexual and questioning youth age 23 and under
- Jewish Bi Caucus (415)-337-4566
- European/Latin Bi Group (415)-668-9900
Counselors and Psychotherapists with expertise in bisexual
- Mary Bradford, PhD, MFCC (510)-843-5508
- Kim Hraca, MFCC (510)-601-1859
- Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse (510)-841-5307 or 464-4652
- Pacific Center for Human Growth (510)-548-8283 low-fee counseling
- Gaylesta (888)-869-4993 (toll-free) therapist referral network
- Maggie Rubenstein PhD (415)-584-0172
- Ron Fox PhD (415)-751-6714
- William Henken, PhD (415)-923-1150
- Little, J.R. (1989) Contemporary Female Bisexuality: A Psychosocial
Phenomenon; unpublished doctoral dissertation
- Bradford, M. (1997) The Bisexual Experience: Living in a Dichotomous
Culture; doctoral dissertation; The Fieldings Institute; Santa Barbara
Kathy Labriola provides low-fee counseling for individuals, couples, and
groups. She has extensive experience assisting people with the
challenges of non-traditional relationships, health problems and
disabilities, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation crises, political activism,
and class struggle. She also facilitates discussion and support groups
on open relationships, health and disabilities, and political activism
and burnout. For further information, or to receive free educational
pamphlets, call (510)464-4652.
1307 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510)464-4652 or (510)841-5307