February 05, 2024

Biphobia and Mental Health – The Power of Stigma

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I realized I was attracted to girls.

I believe I was either eleven or twelve when I began questioning my sexuality. Having internalized society’s perception of sexuality, I thought I had one, clear option: my attraction to girls must’ve meant I was a lesbian.  My attraction to guys wasn’t too odd: I’ve heard plenty of stories about lesbians who dated or were married to men before they realized they were gay. Or perhaps, these crushes and attractions were mere “girl crushes”, and I was straight after all. Either way, it was a black-and-white game: I was either a lesbian or straight. “It’s just a phase”, I told myself, excusing what would later become one of the most important parts of my identity: my sexuality. Little did I know, that me saying “it’s just a phase” to myself was just the beginning.

In spite of being an important part of the community (the ‘Mother of Pride’ was a bisexual woman!), sometimes it feels as if bisexuality is invisible. And when it’s not, biphobia is so internalized both in the lgbt+ community and out of it, that it might as well be. There is so much stigma around bisexuality: that we’re greedy, that we’re faking it for attention, that we’re “one foot out of the closet”, that we’re not real, that it’s just a phase, that we’re more likely to cheat, that we’re less capable of monogamy (because apparently being attracted to more than one gender means you have no self-control whatsoever) and the list goes on and on and on. Our sexuality is often being reduced into nothing but a fetish (“you’re bisexual, huh? how many times have you had threesomes? do you want one?” – if I had a penny for every time I heard that…), a joke or an indication of the lack of our moral compass. And worst of all, it seems like there’s no escape: we can be discriminated against both by heterosexuals and our so-called “safe space” – the lgbt+ community.

Around the same time I was trying to figure out my sexuality, I also began my very long journey of struggling with mental illnesses. There’s no shame in saying that: I’m mentally ill. There’s a lot of stigmas to debunk here, too, and sometimes, the stigma around bisexuality and the stigma around mental illnesses overlap. Once again, I was told by society that I’m faking it for attention (except this time it was my depression or eating disorders rather than my sexuality). Once again, I had to keep it to myself.

No matter where I looked, society had one message for me: you’re desperate for attention. Everything you do, all the things you’re going through that are shaping you into who you really are? Fake.  No matter which labels I felt comfortable with, which labels I used to describe myself, society seemed to have one for me.

Six years later, and I’ve learned to embrace those labels. More than that – I’ve learned to be proud of my bisexuality and be open about my mental illnesses. I’ve learned that my bisexuality was nothing to be ashamed of and that I have every right to demand my place in the community – our place in the community and that being mentally ill doesn’t make me less worthy of happiness. More than anything, I’ve learned that both are an important part of my identity, of my life – and that’s exactly why I have a voice. To speak up, to scream if necessary – to create my own place if I can’t find it. But that was a long process I had to go through (a process that in a way, I’m still going through), and what happens in the meantime can be more than harmful: it can be crucial.

Unfortunately, the connection between mental health problems and biphobia is not coincidental. It’s not a made-up theory from an attention-seeking bisexual: a research that was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that bisexual people most frequently have mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal tendencies. In addition, a major Canadian study found that bisexual men are 6.3 times more likely – and bisexual women are 5.9 times more likely than heterosexuals to be suicidal.  In both groups, this was also higher than rates for both gay men and lesbians.

But why?

One of the biggest, most destructive reasons is what I like to call “The Power of Invisibility”.

We always seem to talk about why representation matters – and it does.  It does for people of colour, it does for us mentally ill folks (accurate representation – looking at you, Netflix. Thank you for turning one of my favourite books into a messed-up romanticisation of mental illnesses), and when people say it does for the lgbt+ community, I hope they remember how important it is for us bisexuals, too.

I don’t remember when I came across the word ‘bisexual’ for the first time, but I do know it was long after I heard the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. To me, it was simple: if you’re attracted to girls, you’re a lesbian. If not, you’re straight. I had no idea being attracted to both was an option. And by the time I finally learned what it was, and tried to find it in shows like The L Word, it was nowhere to be seen. And by the time I did find it? It was full of negativity, perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Bisexuality has become ‘The B Word’. Even when bisexuality is there, very few will dare to call it by its name. It’s always ‘experimenting’, or bisexual women being overly-sexualised, with their sexuality being nothing more than a fetish for the pleasure of the men around them. And where on earth are the bisexual men? if I thought pop culture’s portrayal of the bi community is accurate, bi men would be the community’s equivalent of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster: some people could swear that they exist, but most of us wouldn’t believe it. Both on-screen and in real life, bisexuals in same-sex relationships are gay, and bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships are straight. And all I want to know is –

Why are you so afraid of us? Of admitting that we actually exist?

People can love both chocolate and vanilla, cats and dogs, rain and the sunshine, Apple, and Android, tea, and coffee… but for some reason, bisexuality is “just a phase” because “how can you like both?”. So let’s clarify something. I am bilingual. I adore cats and dogs. I think both black and white are beautiful, elegant colors. I love both chocolate and vanilla, and guess what? I’m also bisexual. And if you didn’t have a problem with the other parts of the list, then what’s the problem with the last one?

Here’s the thing. This invisibility (also known as bi-erasure – I’m sure you’ve heard that term before), doesn’t only bother us because we want more shows with bisexual characters to binge watch (although I wouldn’t mind that). Bi-erasure is harmful. As we’ve already established, biphobia can lead to lower self-esteem, self-loathing, depression, and suicidal tendencies… and why wouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t it, when biphobia teaches us that we’re flawed, invisible, untrustworthy and greedy simply because we exist?

Well, that’s what communities and safe spaces are for, isn’t it?

I remember about eight months ago when I went to a place that is generally considered a safe space. It was one of those clubs for youth-at-risk, a place I found because of my depression. Right from the first time I was there, the volunteers explained that it was a safe space and they called it a “judgment free” zone, which in many ways, it was. One day, I overheard one of the volunteers explaining why gay men such as himself were oppressed…

… and a minute later, talking about how bisexuals didn’t have these problems because bisexuality didn’t really exist. Now, I’ve seen them challenging homophobic comments before, but this particular remark went unchallenged.

I was furious.

I was furious because this was a place that I considered a safe space. I was furious because no one around me seemed to see the problem. I had heard them condemning homophobic remarks before, preaching about respect and acceptance… but not now.

Bisexuals belong to the lgbt+ community, and yet it often seems as if we don’t really belong there. And we certainly don’t belong in the heterosexual community, which leaves us mostly with confusion, and a lack of sense of belonging. More things to add to the “how biphobia affects our mental health” pile.

Truth is, I could go on and on and on about biphobia and how harmful it is. Biphobia, internalized or not, causes higher rates of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression – but I believe we’ve established that already. Personally, I was very fortunate: when I came out, I had a supportive environment, but I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I was. So, now that we know that – how could we change that?

We need a drastic change and we need it as soon as possible. However, as we all know, you can’t go from zero to a hundred in a day – but whether you’re bisexual or not, there are things you can do. For example, challenge biphobic comments, remarks or behaviors when you hear or see them. Whether it’s online or out there, making sure everyone knows that biphobia is unacceptable can be a huge step forward. And just as important, help us make sure the lgbt+ community – our community, is as inclusive and accepting as it should be. Because we are, after all, stronger together