I had never been in a room with so many known bisexuals. Approximately 100 bisexual advocates, researchers, and community members from all over the U.S. were gathered in the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the first ever White House Bisexual Community Policy Briefing on September 21, 2015. I was excited to be included in this gathering and a little star-struck after meeting activist authors, Lorraine Hutchins and Robin Ochs, whose work I read early in my own bisexual identity development.
I’m a psychologist who studies interventions to support LGBTQ individuals and communities, and I’ve published and presented on bisexuality. Last summer I attended a meeting of researchers and advocates for bisexuality at Fenway (the LGBT health institute in Boston, not the ball field), which led to the formation of the Bisexual Research Collaborative for Health (BIRCH), which enhances collaboration among bisexual health researchers and raises public awareness of bi health issues. I suspect my connection to this group helped me land on the guest list for the briefing.
I hoped the briefing would raise much-needed awareness about this vulnerable population. Despite advances in societal acceptance of lesbians and gay men and more recent attention to the experiences of transgender people, bisexuality remains largely invisible. Most people assume that bisexuals are a minority within a minority that experience relatively mild stigma.
They are surprised to learn that:
- there are many people who have attractions or romantic/sexual behavior with more than one gender who do not identify as bisexual;
- there are more bisexual people than lesbians and gay men combined; and
- bisexuals experience poor outcomes in terms of mental health, intimate partner violence, economic insecurity, physical health, and employment discrimination.
What happens when bisexuals are not counted in research, census and other federal data collection, and workplace settings? This invisibility results in a lack of accurate information, reliance on stereotypes, and the absence of the protective role that community can play in the face of minority stress.
The morning of the briefing, I perused the available topics, which included violence, employment, physical health, immigration, and education; and I grabbed a seat at the mental health table. I was looking forward to hearing what others had to say and contributing to the conversation. We heard speakers share their experiences and bring attention to policies and practices that disadvantage bisexuals. In between speakers, we identified gaps in mental health care, training, funding, and research. We talked about what bi-affirming mental health services would be like, how to make training bi-inclusive, and how to highlight the needs and experiences of bisexuals in research and funding.
- Mental health providers can help clients feel comfortable disclosing bisexuality by avoiding monosexual assumptions (e.g., don’t assume a client’s sexual orientation based on current or past sex partners)
- Researchers can investigate unique mental health outcomes and experiences of bisexuals by analyzing data from bisexuals separately
- Funders can require that bisexuals are studied and served in numbers consistent with their proportion of the population
- Training can increase bi-inclusive mental health care (e.g., affirm same-sex attractions without assuming all clients with same-sex attractions are lesbian or gay)
Overall, the briefing was a rewarding experience. Almost 50 years after Stonewall, we got the opportunity to talk with the federal government about the needs of bisexual people. It took years to lay the foundation for this gathering, and it will take a collective effort to move the policy agenda forward. The briefing enhanced connections among bisexual advocates, facilitated communication with government agencies, and identified policy priorities, all of which makes me feel like we are on the right track.
Tania Israel, PhD is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Israel is an APA Fellow, member of the APA Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, and Past-President of the Society of Counseling Psychology (Division 17). She is a researcher, teacher, advocate, and presenter of a TED talk, “Bisexuality and Beyond.”