From Frances in BBC Three’s Conversations with Friends to Loki in the eponymous Disney+ series, bi representation seems to be at an all-time high, after years of being treated as non-existent. We’ve gone from Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw claiming the sexuality was just a “a layover on the way to Gaytown” in 2000, to Charlie in Netflix’s highly popular Heartstopper stating plainly, “bisexual people exist’ in 2022.
This shift is reflected in the number of celebrities we have seen coming out as bisexual or queer in recent years, including some in long term straight-passing relationships, such as Jameela Jamil, who has been in a relationship with musician James Blake since 2015. However, the reaction to these coming out stories isn’t always positive. When Anna Paquin came out as bisexual in 2010 and married her husband later the same year, the True Blood star was hounded with criticism on her Instagram channel, with many asking why she would bother sharing this part of herself with the world, given she was committing to a lifetime of monogamy with a man.
These puzzled and even hostile reactions to bisexual people in hetero relationships coming out are also a common experience beyond the celebrity world. Rosie, 34, a bisexual woman who came out five years into a nine-year relationship with a man said: “When I told my cis male partner I was bi he was initially really confused, I think he wanted to know what this meant and if I was going to leave him or if I needed to explore my sexuality now. I also had the sense he didn’t quite believe me because I’d never been in a relationship with a woman before.”
Sophie, 32, who identifies as bisexual, pansexual and queer, said: “Although my parents had always reassured me they would love me if I was gay, when I came out as bisexual the reaction was more like, ‘why are you telling us this? Do we need to know?’ Although I know they didn’t mean to be unsupportive, I felt deflated.”
So why might a closeted person in a long-term monogamous relationship with a cis, straight person feel the need to reveal this aspect of their identity to others? If they aren’t planning to act on their feelings of sexual and romantic attraction to other genders, is there any point saying anything at all?
From a mental health perspective, it appears that there is. According to researchers at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) in the US, bisexuals who are open with others about their sexuality have lower stress-hormone levels and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout. This is particularly relevant given that for bi people in particular, mental health can be a real area for concern. Looking at the mental health of gay, lesbian and heterosexual people, people who identify as bi come out worst by a long way, with higher rates of depression and anxiety, substance abuse and suicide.
Quinn, 39, who has identified as bisexual in a straight-passing relationship in the past, attributes some of this to the stigma bisexuals face from both queer and straight people: “For some sectors of the queer community, especially some lesbians and gay men, I hear this idea that being seen as straight by others affords you privilege. On one level I agree. In a straight-passing relationship you are at much lower risk of experiencing hate crime when out with your partner or being directly discriminated against at work. These are privileges. But on another level, I find it hard to attribute a position of privilege to the experience of hiding, invisibility, fear, and reluctance to come out, which many bi people experience, and the consequences of which can be seen in the mental health stats for bi populations.”
Bi Pride UK
Common to the experience of revealing oneself as bisexual can be having that sexuality dismissed or denied, which is often described as “bisexual invisibility”. Quinn continues: “Even though I’d been out for years and had various queer relationships, when I was in my long term straight-passing relationship my family would often conveniently forget that I was bisexual as it was easy for them to look at my relationship and be like, ‘well that’s a straight relationship’.
“It was the same for my gay friends who would often offhandedly refer to me as straight even though I was heavily involved in the queer community and queer activism and always introduced myself as bisexual. It was painful to feel a huge part of myself wasn’t being seen.”
Perhaps for this reason, tapping into bisexual spaces, solidarity and support around these experiences can be a motivating factor for some to speak up about this aspect of their identity. Bisexuals I spoke to talked about becoming involved with organisations such as Bi Pride UK or the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre and meeting other bisexual people via events listings on websites like Biscuit, which promotes meet-ups, pub nights and socials where bisexuals can together, socialise and share their experiences.
Aside from accessing queer community, for some the motivation for coming out was about fighting against the culture of invisibility and creating a better world for younger bisexuals.
Rosie said: “I grew up at the time of Section 28, when the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities was prohibited in schools, and I never heard anything about bisexuals other than they didn’t exist or if they did, they were just greedy! I think knowing another bisexual person in real life would have really helped normalise my sexuality and help me see a world in which I could also be out and comfortable within it. For me, that’s partly why it feels important to share this aspect of myself, no matter who my partner is.”
Of course, coming out is an incredibly personal decision and nobody should feel pressure to do so before they are ready, or at all. Equally for some, the risks will be greater than others, with people in some contexts people facing a real threat of violence. Meanwhile, some have critiqued the entire concept of “coming out” more generally, with the Black National Justice Coalition suggesting instead we should talk about the process of “coming in”. This idea disrupts the traditional power dynamics around the process of coming out, arguing that no one is entitled to information about someone’s sexuality which isn’t freely given and suggests people should only be invited to hear this information if they prove themselves to be compassionate and trustworthy.
As a bisexual woman in a straight passing relationship, I had come out to all the main people in my life before going out with my cis, male partner. However, the process of coming out isn’t something which just happens once. Since then, in new contexts there have been times where it has felt easier to be assumed straight than it has been to speak up about my sexuality. Equally, on other occasions I’ve mentioned it within the first few hours of meeting a new person. Always with the latter I have felt that, after an initial feeling of exposure, followed by the sense of relief which comes from having shown myself more fully to the world.
As Sophie puts it: “Now I am out I do feel sadness for my closeted self and mourn the time I felt I had to prove my sexuality before I could own it because of the heteronormative, biphobic society I grew up in. The years I spent separated from this important part of myself feels like such a shame because I love my identity as a bisexual woman and for me the benefits of coming out, whether in a ‘straight passing’ relationship or not, have been manifold. It’s been about recognising who I am, owning who I am and loving who I am, which is so important for my sense of self.”
More Brits aged 16–24 than ever before are identifying as bi. Full story here.