I wish I had come out as bisexual earlier, and I'm sometimes embarrassed that I didn't given how much less I had to lose than those in far more hostile environments; I was at a socially liberal college, and I didn't have to fear being estranged from my family. Being attracted to women meant that I could pursue romantic relationships with the gender everyone expected me to without feeling like those relationships were dishonest, but I was troubled by a growing sense that the important people in my life didn't know the whole story. Part of what kept me from doing something about it sooner was the stereotype that bisexuals were lying to themselves -- that, for men, bisexuality was just a pit stop on the way to gayville.
This week, I was encouraged and moved to read that scientists at Northwestern had confirmed what should be obvious: Bisexuality in men exists. The study, which measured arousal in men in response to images of men and women, contravenes a number of others that have arrived at the opposite conclusion.
One such study, released in 2005, came out a few months before I did. The New York Times headline blared, "Gay, Straight, or Lying?" I hadn't told the person who showed me the article -- or anyone else, for that matter -- that I was wrestling with my own sexuality. I had promised myself that I would use my last year of college to figure out what my deal was. Seeing that article reinforced a fear that, however dishonest it may have been to portray myself as a gay-friendly straight guy, there was nothing I could say about my identity that would be both honest and perceived as such.
As some have pointed out, checking for arousal in response to videos is a poor way of capturing the complexity of desire; other scientists have made the dubious suggestion based on similar measures that women secretly fantasize about being raped. But while the scientific community may be coming closer to recognizing bisexuality, the culture has not. There's been significant progress in portrayals of gay characters on TV, but you're still unlikely to see any openly bisexual men, and if you see bisexual women, chances are it's as objects of male fascination.
But perhaps even more troubling is the skepticism that persists toward bisexuals in the LGBT community as well. Dan Savage -- witty dispenser of sex and dating advice and co-creator of the acclaimed "It Gets Better" Project -- is one of the most vocal reinforcers of the myths I heard before, during, and after coming out. Asked by a homosexual woman how to handle her insecurity about dating a bisexual, threesome-seeking girlfriend, Savage tells her: "Get yourself a real lesbian girlfriend." In the documentary Bi the Way, Savage said he would tell a 19-year-old boy who said he was bisexual, "Yeah, right, I doubt it," and that he wouldn't believe him for a decade.
I remember being told that my bisexuality was a phase -- both by people who expected me to graduate to being gay and by those who thought I'd return to only dating women. Each person who said so made it harder to come out. It rings hollow to tell people that "it gets better," but that along the way they'll change their mind about their sexual orientation.
Why do some in the LGBT community distrust bisexuality? First, as Savage's work suggests, there's a suspicion that bisexuals will choose to "pass" as heterosexual when it behooves them. There's a sense that sexual minority status is optional for bisexuals; they carry a queer membership card in LGBT-friendly circles but keep it tucked away elsewhere. Though the choices bisexual people confront -- Do I come out to my boss? Do I summon anecdotes that imply I'm straight? -- may have a different inflection, they share the same foundation as those of gay people: How open will I be about who I am? Rather than discouraging people from coming out as bisexual, LGBT people should challenge each other to be more out in more aspects of their lives.
But there's a political bent, too. Some suspicion toward bisexuals is rooted in the concern that their very existence undermines a narrative of the gay-rights movement: that gay people cannot find sexual fulfillment and happiness with the opposite sex, so they should be treated equally when it comes to forming partnerships and marrying. Bisexuality is perceived to reinforce the conservative view that gay people can change or that at least they can choose to fulfill traditional gender roles and date the other sex. But the spectrum of sexual orientation doesn't disprove the existence of gay people on one end of the Kinsey scale; my ability to be attracted to both men and women doesn't mean that a gay person can be coerced into being straight. And it's healthy to have some public arguments for LGBT equality that rest on the inherent value of same-sex partnerships in themselves, rather than rely on the argument that it's impossible for gay people to have partnerships with the other sex.
More people should come out. Doing so has deepened my friendships, given me the strength to be an effective union organizer, and made possible a cherished partnership. It also hastens a social and political shift in favor of equality. America's most significant division in sexual orientation -- the most policed, regulated, and fraught -- is between exclusive heterosexuality and everything else. People choosing to cross the line into queerness should be welcomed, not made to forswear all opposite-sex attraction.
Science moved this week toward recognizing that a teenager attracted to both girls and boys need not be lying or confused. It's time the rest of us did as well.