Bisexual women on campus struggle with acceptance and support from community

Val O’Neill, news staff

This past November, Emily O’Brien met her now boyfriend. When O’Brien, a second-year English and journalism combined major at Northeastern, excitedly went to tell her all-queer friend group the good news, she didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for. 

After telling them she thought she might find a happy relationship with this cisgender and straight man, one of her friends tugged at the rainbow Pride flag hanging in her dorm room and said, “I guess we should take this down.” O’Brien laughed along with her friends, but she felt a sinking feeling when she realized her queer-identifying friends had just completely invalidated her sexuality. As one of the few bisexual-identifying women in her friend group, O’Brien felt isolated and disapproved of. 

“I have been told to ‘pick a side’ by straight people and it never really bothered me,” O’Brien said. “But it was weird that the people I found comfort with were the ones invalidating me.”

O’Brien is not the only one who has felt as though the very people who should be the most accepting about sexual identity are the ones who discredited hers the most. 

Many bisexual students have found their sexuality continuously discredited by people in general and specifically by those within the LGBTQ+ community. Bisexual women who date men are either “jumping to conclusions” or “faking it for attention,” but minimizing a bisexual-identifying person’s sexuality due to their choice of partner can be damaging and diminishing to their identity. 

“Just because someone is in a relationship with a person of a specific gender doesn’t negate their identity or their attraction to another gender,” said Thekla Morgenroth, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. “There’s a vast body of literature on identity denial, and it shows that if you have a certain identity and other people question that identity, that that can have consequences for mental health.” 

Because many bisexual people struggle to be fully certain of their sexual orientation, they face discrimination. 

“There is often this sense that bisexual people have privileges that gay and lesbian people do not have. [Bisexual people] have their identity questioned much more than gay and lesbian people do,” Morgenroth said. “But they do have this privilege where they could just decide to be in an opposite sex relationship and live happily ever after.” 

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study with 1,197 respondents, only 9% of bisexual-identifying people are in relationships with someone of the same sex, compared to 84% who are in relationships with the opposite sex. Bisexuality only began to attract attention in the late 1970s, making it a still-relatively new category of the LGBTQ+ community, especially to older generations who believe someone can only be gay or straight. 

However, that perception is changing with a younger, more accepting generation.

“It’s more acceptable to be openly bisexual and there’s more representation of that in the media,” Morgenroth said. “These [identity] categories are becoming more fluid and less binary, especially among younger folks.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also gave many people the courage and incentive to find themselves and come out, with a specific uptick in bisexual-identifying people in Generation Z, according to Gallup’s 2020 survey estimate, which found bisexuality to be the most common LGBTQ+ identity among Gen Z. Roughly three-quarters of the Pew study were bisexual women. This created a new problem: people accusing bisexual women, especially those who date men, of “following the trend.” Bisexual women are one of the biggest targets of invalidation of their sexualities. 

O’Brien knows this well. Back in her dorm room, she knew her friends were joking, but she still felt unsupported and hurt. 

“I thought the queer community had moved past this type of biphobia,” O’Brien said. “But that is not always the case.” 

A Queer History Lesson and How it’s Changing

The idea of bisexuality has been present dating back to Ancient Rome and even further back in history. People have always experienced attraction to both genders, but when the term “bisexuality” as a sexual orientation gained popularity in the 1970s, the stigmatization towards it came too. 

“In Europe, leading to the colonization of the Americas, things were much more repressive in terms of the influence of the church on sexuality,” said Sarah Jen, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at Kansas University. “And that’s when homosexuality and bisexuality [were] much more stigmatized. Not only stigmatized but demonized. It was considered a sin and folks were actually criminalized for engaging in those kinds of behaviors.”

After the sexual revolution in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Jen said, many people began to speak out more about sexuality, and people became more familiar with different sexual orientations. However, that came with consequences.

 “We kind of developed some of our now-current stereotypes of bisexuality including the idea that bisexual women are really deep, non-monogamous and hypersexual and want to have sex with everybody,” Jen said.

After the sexual revolution, heading into the late 1990s and the early 2000s, stereotypes revolving around bisexuality shifted. Jen said she believes now, it’s “much more defined by, ‘is bisexuality enough? Is it queer enough? Does it fit into this community enough because it feels like this in between, liminal, marginal space?”’

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, gay and lesbian people reported facing more discrimination than bisexual people, but bisexual people reported a much higher rate of feelings of isolation and shame about their sexual orientation, which also causes an uptick in bisexual people’s mental health issues. 

In 1952, the American Psychological Association published the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

 “Bisexuality wasn’t being written on until about like the early 2000s, 2010, when we even started to see articles being written about bisexuality,” said Erika Karpman, a sexuality therapist and educator based in Colorado. “So now we’re even just starting to bridge this conversation that bisexuality is an identity.” 

Since the ‘50s, when the DSM considered the LGBTQ+ a cesspool of mental illness, society has come a long way in recognizing all types of sexualities as legitimate, specifically bisexuality. 

“With that, we also kind of get more of the stigma and more of the kind of pushback of legitimacy, of bisexuality and identity,” Karpman said. Bisexuality is placed in a gray area, Karpman said, because lesbian and gay are seen as “either or,” and bisexuality more “encompasses the ‘and.’”

Karpman defines this invalidation by others in the LGBTQ+ community as “double discrimination.” When the discrimination comes from peers in the community, it increases that feeling of isolation, she said. 

“The more oppression we feel coming from all angles, the more intense and harder things are going to be,” Karpman said.

Although the world has become more accepting of bisexuality, the prejudice bisexual people still face is not new. 

“Because those stigmas have always been around, that has always contributed to challenges of mental health,” Karpman said. 

Where Bisexuality is Going

The invalidation and erasure of bisexuality has been proven to increase the chances of bisexual-identifying people suffering from the most mental health issues, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“Anybody in a minority group experiences minority stress, which is like the feeling of being othered by those around you,” said Charlotte Fountaine, a service and product designer based in London, and the founder of Kalda, the world’s first LGBTQ+ mental wellbeing app. “If you’re bisexual in a sort of straight passing relationship, the kind of otherness is doubled because you don’t feel necessarily at home in the LGBT community.”  

Fountaine’s app, Kalda, offers video courses on accepting one’s sexuality without attending actual sessions. The app offers one called “Embracing Bisexuality,” which helps bisexual-identifying people overcome stigmas. 

“For instance, the idea that you’re greedy or the idea that you’re on your way to a monosexual kind of sexuality,” Fountaine said. The idea that “you’re going to turn out to be gay or turn out to be straight, when in reality, having a fluid sexual identity is totally valid.”

These types of stigmas and commentary from others can also result in the internalization of these ideas, which can be even more dangerous to a queer person’s mental health. 

“I think the most classic … symptom of having some kind of internalized biphobia is the constant questioning of ‘am I bi,’” Fountaine said, “Trying to understand, ‘does my bi experience match with other people’s,’ that’s really stressful.” 

It’s easy to absorb these invalidating comments, especially for those who are in relationships that make them appear heterosexual.

The messages that you receive about sexuality from a young age do tend to stick with us, whether [or not] we grow up and live those same values that we were taught,

— Elizabeth Mateer, mental health counselor

“People start to kind of second guess their identity,” said Elizabeth Mateer, a mental health counselor based in Seattle focused on LGBTQ+ health education. 

These people may think that they’ve been in a heterosexual relationship for so long that they should just identify as straight because it’s easier, Mateer said. 

“There’s this feeling of not being known that I think a lot of bisexual people experience and struggle with,” Mateer said.

Second-year nursing major Edyson Pines is a self-identifying bisexual. Although Pines has never experienced invalidation of her sexuality by those around her, she feels that because she has only been in serious relationships with men, her brain tells her sometimes that she’s not a “real” bisexual. 

“I know that I’ve been bi since I was 16, and I’ve never had a homosexual relationship, I’ve only had heterosexual relationships,” Pines said. “I think it’s more like an internal thing. I think I internally invalidate myself.” 

Pines is currently in a long-term heterosexual relationship. 

“I’ve repressed myself a little bit about it because the relationship I’m in now, I’m fairly certain it’s going to be a lifelong relationship,” Pines said. “So, I’m never going to date a girl, so it’s like, am I really bi?”

Growing up and attending Northeastern has encouraged Pines to be more open and expressive about her sexuality, she said. 

“I think it’s a very accepting community. I don’t think there’s a lot of repression of sexuality, and I think a lot of people like to express their sexuality with how they dress,” Pines said. “My friends have told me that I dress like a lesbian sometimes. I like expressing myself like that and I don’t care if people think that I’m a lesbian.”

Especially within Gen Z, fashion choices have become a way for members of the LGBTQ+ community to express their identities. 

“I think self-expression and fashion, those kinds of things are definitely a good way of expressing yourself,” Fountaine said. “I think also having things in your space like gay posters and all this kind of stuff is a great way to feel connected.” 

Jordan Martino is a bisexual-identifying fourth-year mathematics major at Northeastern. 

“When I had brown hair, I felt like I looked very straight,” Martino said. “Now I have orange hair, and I feel like my tattoos kind of set me apart a little bit. There’s a pride flag in my living room, so whoever is in my space kind of knows who I am.” 

Martino, like many others, has learned to express her sexuality through the way she looks. Many recent social media trends have boxed certain fashion choices into sexuality categories. Dr. Martens, baggy jeans and dyed hair have become token “bisexual” aesthetic choices. 

The environment one is brought up in can also have a powerful impact on the internalization of values regarding the LGBTQ+ community. As queer people of younger generations get older, many reject the values they were taught when they were young. However, some of these values may hang around, whether consciously known or not. 

“The messages that you receive about sexuality from a young age do tend to stick with us, whether [or not] we grow up and live those same values that we were taught,” Mateer said. 

If one grows up being told homosexuality is wrong, she said, then if they grow up to be queer, there may be something telling them that what they are doing is wrong. 

“If that’s the message we received as a child and then we grow up with that, a lot of times there is still that shame that is pretty deep seated and is very hard to fully break free from,” Mateer said.

Lauren Kaufmann, a second-year psychology and criminal justice combined major, was raised Catholic in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it was made clear to her from a young age that LGBTQ+ people were not accepted in her household. 

“Until I got to college, it wasn’t really something I could even explore,” Kaufmann said. “ Even in college I still have so much internalized homophobia and stress about ‘oh what if [my parents] did find out, what if they saw something.’”

For years, Kaufmann said, she used to pray that she was wrong about her sexuality. 

“Eventually, I just couldn’t ignore it. I was like, okay, this is not how most people feel,” Kaufman said. 

The messages Kaufmann received from her parents growing up hindered her ability to come to terms with her sexuality, and that still affects her today, she said. 

“At least in my experience, it resulted in a lot of internalized homophobia and lack of personal acceptance, just because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to,” Kaufmann said. “It’s just something I haven’t fully processed, it’s like I’m out to everyone but myself.” 

As Gen Z’s large population of LGBTQ+  people grow up, children will begin to grow up in these types of households where sexual orientation is stigmatized less and less. 

“It’s just one of those things that I treat as a fact of life,” Kaufmann said. “I’m bisexual, I’m from North Carolina, I have three younger siblings. It can be just a non-event.”