“I can understand people being gay, but I just can't wrap my head around people being bisexual. To me that's a sign of deep confusion. Not knowing who you are. Not being able to make up your mind. Maybe just wanting the attention.”
I sat there with a lump in my throat, shocked and unsafe, after hearing a respected member of my local recovery community share these beliefs about bisexuality. Having previously viewed this individual as progressive and compassionate with the women she sponsored, I didn’t really know how to respond. At the time, I self-identified as bisexual but was not out to many people. Hearing a statement like this from someone whom I saw as liberal heightened my apprehension about going fully public.
Her commentary, as I’ve since discovered, is indicative of how many addiction professionals view the bisexual client presenting for services. Such biased statements about bisexual individuals are not exclusive to straight commentators. Some of the most hurtful statements I’ve heard or read about bisexuals come from individuals who are gay or lesbian.
I do not strive to provide you with a long list of treatment statistics in this article. Rather, I seek to present the concept of biphobia as a universal phenomenon. I explain how its manifestation in addiction services can form an emotional barrier for the bisexual client seeking treatment. Finally, I offer some solutions for fostering greater validation for the bisexual client as part of a trauma-informed, proactive recovery culture.
The term “biphobia,” typically defined as fear of bisexuality, is becoming more commonly used in popular media. I see biphobia as more than just a fear issue. Biphobic expressions typically originate from a toxic blend of fear, lack of understanding about bisexuality, and unchecked personal biases about sexuality.
In my own graduate education at both the master's and doctoral level, I “learned” two very erroneous notions about bisexuality. The first is that bisexuality is usually some type of middle step that people must take in the process of coming out fully as gay or lesbian. The second is that to truly identify as bisexual you must have been able to sustain a long-term relationship (a year or more) with people of both binary genders. As part of my own personal work and coming out, I’ve thankfully discovered that the true experts vehemently refute both notions.
Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs expresses that “I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”1 Even the American Psychological Association recognizes the continuum nature of sexuality and validates that the stigma experienced by bisexuals can yield significant stress responses.2
According to Bisexual.org, the public outreach project of the American Institute of Bisexuality founded by Dr. Fritz Klein:
“A bi person has the capacity for romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender. For most people, that simply means that you can be attracted to both men and women. If you honestly feel you meet that criteria, then you are bisexual. As a bi person, you do not have to feel the same kind or intensity of attraction to all genders. As a bi person, there is nothing for you to prove, nothing to consummate, no requirement to 'maintain' your bisexuality. Understanding and acknowledging your own sexuality is a personal process and is about living with integrity and being true to yourself.”3
This simple paragraph beautifully encapsulates the teachings of Klein, creator of the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and author of The Bisexual Option (1978, 1993), the first major book on bisexuality. Yet why do so many addiction and mental health professionals still find themselves flummoxed by this description? Yes, there is the misinformation and poor education variable, as evidenced by my graduate school experiences. However, the most striking answer comes from Klein himself. In The Bisexual Option he provides salient insight into the “threat” that bisexuality poses to a society that is obsessed with neat, clean labels:
“No matter what sexual orientation a person has, he or she lives on a continuum. Despite the certainty of eventual death, the life of an individual goes on until that time. During the course of a lifetime each individual plays a number of roles: father, mother, soldier, teacher, heterosexual, homosexual, and so on. We take comfort in the labels; they help define our relationship with one another and with the world at large. Yet with each label we acquire, we limit our infinite possibilities, our uniqueness. It is our insistence on labels that creates the “either-or” syndrome.”4
Think about it. Most mainstream treatment cultures rely on labeling. Some, I would argue, are even obsessed with it. Making sure that clients are described by manualized, precise diagnostic categories is a form of labeling. Adopting pre-defined treatment curricula for our programs and requiring our clients to respond to the curriculum (instead of modifying curricula to respond to the needs of individual clients) is a form of labeling. When a recovery culture, especially formal treatment, relies on people fitting into neat boxes, I contend that a bisexual-identified client will have a more difficult time being validated by those who are there to help them.