A quick guide to bisexual history

Steven Taylor, an Inclusion and Diversity Consultant at Inclusive Employers, delves into the history of bisexuality while reflecting on his own personal experience.

I’ll let you in on a little secret; I only came out as bisexual in my mid-twenties and unfortunately, there is no great coming out story to share.

It was more of a realisation, and a couple of years of confused exploration, that I eventually came to the conclusion that I wasn’t completely straight (heterosexual).

I’ll be the first to honestly admit that perhaps I was also having feelings of internalised homophobia from my experiences growing up, so it was also a part of me I chose not to entertain in my younger years.

The fact that I could have heterosexual relationships and be completely happy in those, led me to not fully explore my orientation until later in life, when I was more comfortable and confident in myself as a person.

I’ve always been attracted to other genders since I can remember, so for me I was never living a lie as others may assume; I guess I just wasn’t living my full truth either.

For me personally, there was a lack of representation, education, and access to resources about a community that I felt like I did not fully belong.

I would look at the LGBTQ+ community growing up and never completely relate or identify with others, so I never really felt as though I could associate with or be involved with the community from a personal perspective, only from an ally perspective. I suppose that’s why we’re referred to as the “hidden majority”.

The bisexual (bi+) community make up approximately 1.8% of the population, compared to 1.6% of those who identify as gay or lesbian (ONS, 2019). And yet, I could probably count the amount of bisexual people I’ve met on one hand, and even less bisexual males (two, to be exact).

So yes, I could have continued living a potentially easier life “playing it straight” or never openly discussing my orientation, but this is why I continue to share my lived experience and advocate for the bisexual community.

If sharing my story can resonate with just one other person and allow them to feel seen, validated, or make their personal journey of discovery that little bit easier, then hopefully I’ve done my job.   

So, what does the term bisexual really mean?

The word bisexual can have many different meanings for different people and can even be considered an umbrella term (bi+) to include many other orientations; sexually, romantically or otherwise.

Our LGBTQ+ glossary states that the word ‘bisexual’ means:

“A person who feels sexual attraction to two or more genders. Bisexual can mean attracted to men and women in the binary view of gender. Bisexual can also mean being attracted to your own and other genders.”

Understanding bisexual history

Linking my experience to bisexual history, I genuinely think it took me so long to realise my orientation because I didn’t fit so neatly into one box or another, and having learnt various bisexual history facts, it completely validates my lived experience all the more.

It’s, therefore, no surprise that when I started researching bisexual history, once again it was very difficult to find many resources or information on this orientation.

Those who identify as bisexual not only face homophobia from the heterosexual community but also bi-phobia and bi-erasure from both inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community.

Where it began and how it progressed

Bisexuals in the past who were in same-gender relationships were expected to represent themselves as gay to support the liberation movement, or instead were accused of having hetero-privilege being in an opposite-gender relationship, and were often never truly, fully accepted by the LGBTQ+ community.

Bisexuals have therefore mostly gone unnoticed or been overlooked when it comes to LGBTQ+ activism.

Bisexual people in history

One bisexual who certainly did not go unnoticed and is probably the most well-known bisexual activist amongst the LGBTQ+ community was Brenda Howard, also known as “The Mother of Pride”.

In 1969, a month after the Stonewall riots, Howard conceptualised and coordinated the pride rally known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March (where the Stonewall Inn is based).

A year later, Howard also organised the first of what became the annual Liberation Day March, which later transformed into NYC Pride and was the inspiration for Pride Parades throughout the US, earning Howard her legendary title. The first Pride march was later established in the UK in London in 1972.

Other lesser-known activists involve public speakers, writers, and those in the entertainment industry.  

More people are feeling comfortable enough to express their orientation which has resulted in people with large platforms coming out as bisexual. Some famous bisexuals who have shared their stories include:

  • Auli’I Cravalho
  • Billie Joe Armstrong
  • Tinashe
  • Daniel Newman
  • Franchesca Ramsey
  • Jason Mraz
  • Halsey
  • Andy Mientus
  • Lili Reinhart
  • Megan Fox
  • Alan Cumming

The challenges of being bisexual

As mentioned earlier, the two most common challenges of identifying as bisexual (bi+) are experiencing both bi-phobia and bi-erasure.

Bi-phobia

Bi-phobia is the fear, hatred, or discomfort of those who are sexually or romantically attracted to more than one gender.

This can often be displayed through words, actions, or behaviours such as negative stereotypes and myths about bisexuality, denial that bisexuality is a genuine orientation, and/or bisexual erasure. 

Bi-erasure

Bi-erasure is a rejection of the bisexual identity and the refusal to believe that bisexual exists as an identity.

This often occurs by assuming the sexuality of someone based on the gender of their partner (straight/gay), or by asserting such phrases such as “it’s just a phase”, “they are undecided” and/or “they are too scared to come out”.

The impact of bi-phobia, bi-erasure and bi-invisibility often means, compared to those who identify as gay and/or lesbian, those who identify as bisexual are more likely to suffer from depression, self-harming and suicidal thoughts, as well as being less likely to be out to their friends and family or seek support from the LGBTQ+ community or their workplace (Stonewall, 2020).

How to support bisexual colleagues in the workplace

To potentially alleviate some of the concerns mentioned above, here are some top tips to show your support for bisexual colleagues in the workplace.

Recognise all identities are valid

The way in which someone wishes to identify must be recognised as a valid identity. We must also understand that there are many different bisexual identities under the bi+ umbrella.

If someone chooses to share with you how they identify, and it does not fit with what you currently know, still accept what they are saying as their truth and respect that.

It’s important to always listen and respect a person’s self-identified terminology, allowing them to further explain, if they feel comfortable and wish to do so. Remembering how a particular individual identifies and using that terminology for that individual will help them to feel more seen.

Terminology may differ for each person

Everyone has the right to self-identify and people will use a variety of terms and labels to express themselves and their orientation.

However, how one person chooses to identify with a particular label, may not correlate to how somebody else identifies with that label.

Terminology is also ever-changing. It is important to remember that not only does terminology change, but how an individual identifies can also change over time.

We should not be confined to labels, however, they can assist us in explaining our lived experiences/feelings and help us to make sense of our world, together.   

Do not make assumptions or speculate

One of the most challenging parts of identifying as bisexual is the assumption that is made based on the gender of the person we are in a relationship with.

Try to move away from the straight/gay notion of orientation and avoid jumping to conclusions. Speculating or gossiping about the orientation of another colleague can also lead to harassment claims under The Equality Act 2010.

Reflect on the language you use

Could you be using more inclusive language such as partner/spouse rather than gendered terms such as boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife.

Could you be saying more inclusive phrases such as “I didn’t know you were also attracted to men” rather than “so are you gay now?”

Be aware of misconceptions / stereotypes

Bisexuals are not undecided, in the closet, promiscuous, greedy, experimenting, automatically polyamorous or attracted to everyone equally (unless they tell you they are!).

Give space

Allow those from the bisexual community to share their experiences and give a safe space for them to share should they wish to.

Be an ally

Amplify the voices of the community by challenging mislabelling, challenging misconceptions and stereotypes, sharing stories, sharing knowledge, signposting to helpful resources, having support groups, and getting involved in your LGBTQ+ staff network meetings and events.