Bisexuals are the ‘invisible majority’ in LGBTQ America
Nearly three-fifths of LGBTQ adults in America identify as bisexual, according to a new Gallup poll, a finding that illustrates the extent of a population that some researchers have termed the “invisible majority” of the queer community.
Young Americans, and young women in particular, have widely rejected the notion of sexuality as a binary choice — straight versus gay — just as they have largely abandoned the either-or, boy-girl system of fixed gender.
One-fifth of Generation Z respondents identified as queer, Gallup found, one of the largest generational LGBTQ populations ever documented.
Two-thirds of young, queer adults polled consider themselves bisexual, meaning they are attracted to more than one gender. Most of them are women, who outnumber bisexual men 3 to 1, according to Gallup. Scholars say American society allows women more latitude than men in exploring sexual identity.
“We have a range of sexualities within us,” said Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor who penned a definitive Queer History of the United States. “I think women have far more permission to be open about their sexual desires than men do, no matter how men feel.”
Around 7 percent of American adult respondents overall identified as queer in 2022, according to Gallup. Of that group, 58 percent identified as bisexual.
Researchers increasingly recognize bisexuality as the largest LGBTQ population. A pioneering 2011 study by the Williams Institute, a UCLA thinktank, examined several earlier surveys and found that bisexuals constituted a narrow majority.
A 2011 report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission termed bisexuals the “invisible majority” of the queer community, calling out a societal tendency to act as if the largest LGBTQ group didn’t exist.
The San Francisco report found that bisexuals are frequently “ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities. Often, the entire sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral or irrelevant.”
The concept of “bisexual erasure” has a long and growing Wikipedia page.
Meanwhile, the visibility of the LGBTQ community as a whole has been increasing. With polls revealing ever-larger numbers of queer Americans, observers may be tempted to conclude the population is rising. One long-running Gallup survey, for example, found twice as many young, queer adults in 2021 as in 2017.
Researchers see the rising poll numbers more as a journey of discovery.
American society has stigmatized homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality and polysexuality for generations. Same-sex sexual activity remained illegal in parts of the United States until 2003. Federal law did not protect same-sex marriage until 2015.
As society has become more accepting of queer Americans, experts say, more people have publicly identified as queer. Rising tolerance may also explain why the queer community is proportionally larger among younger adults than older ones. Among the Silent Generation — Americans born in 1945 or earlier — only 1.7 percent identify as queer.
“As exciting as it is to see those numbers going up, I think those numbers are still not giving us the full picture,” said V Varun Chaudhry, a cultural anthropologist at Brandeis University who studies gender and sexuality.
Only recently have many surveys and studies focused on subgroups in the queer community, such as bisexuals, along with the total LGBTQ population. Gallup, for one, did not ask respondents to identify a specific category until 2020.
The categories themselves have not been static. The definition of bisexuality has expanded in recent years to embrace a broader view of gender and a growing range of LGBTQ subgroups, populations that don’t always fit within the strictures of a one-word label.
The modern concept of bisexuality dates to the 1800s, and the label is showing its age. “Bisexual” implies an either-or duality of genders that arguably ignores transgender, gender-variant and nonbinary people. A landmark 2021 study found 1.2 million nonbinary adults identify with neither the male nor female gender.
The term “is imperfect at best,” the San Francisco commission concluded in its report.
In recent years, bisexuality has evolved into a catchall that embraces pansexuality and polysexuality, expressing the concept of being physically attracted to someone regardless of gender.
The idea of attraction to multiple genders has seeded both celebration and conflict over the decades.
The 20th century saw brief periods of “bisexual chic,” times of heightened public interest and acceptance, sometimes extending to androgynous imagery in fashion magazines and on runways.
The blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay openly identified as bisexual in the 1920s, an era of social and sexual exploration.
Another epoch of bisexual chic peaked amid the androgynous disco stylings of the late 1970s. Elton John came out as bisexual in a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone; David Bowie came out as gay in 1972. Sir Elton later identified as gay, while Bowie settled on a more ambiguous sexual identity.
At the time, celebrities who came out as either bisexual or gay risked fortune and fame. Bowie “said the bisexual label helped sell records in the U.K., but it hurt selling records in the U.S.,” the Harvard professor Bronski said, illustrating how American society resisted accepting queer identities.
Bisexual people have faced ostracism from within the queer community as well as from without.
The modern LGBTQ rights movement struggled for decades to posit the simple idea that some people are born with a natural attraction to others of the same biological sex, a concept that the movement’s opponents have sought to deny.
Many in the movement “felt that people who were saying they were bisexual were being evasive,” Bronski said.
Prejudices persist to this day. A 2019 study found that bisexual people experience “bi-negativity”— anti-bisexual prejudice — “from both heterosexuals and lesbian and gay individuals, as well as the LGBTQ community more broadly.”
Bisexual people are stigmatized over the belief that they are “confused about their sexuality, or that bisexuality does not actually exist,” the study found. They are sometimes viewed as promiscuous or untrustworthy.
“There’s this assumption that you’re either gay or straight and you will ultimately fall to one side or the other,” Chaudhry said. “People might say, ‘Oh, you’re not really committed to this relationship because your last partner was the other gender.’”
To this day, some older lesbian and gay people struggle to accept bisexuality. Younger adults, by contrast, have grown up with “a range of sexualities,” Bronski said, with gay and lesbian just two identities among many.
Survey numbers suggest, however, that young men are far less open than young women to exploring attraction to people of multiple genders. Six percent of American women respondents identify as bisexual, Gallup found, but only 2 percent of men.
Researchers cite enduring masculine stereotypes that associate sexual exploration with femininity. Popular culture is awash in female celebrities who identify as bisexual; male bisexual role models seem fewer.
“If I had to guess, I would say there are more societal constraints around masculinity than around femininity,” Chaudhry said. “There’s a lot more societally accepted fluidity and freedom in so-called female friendships.”
A 2019 Pew Research survey found bisexual people are much less likely than gay or lesbian people to be “out” to important people in their lives. One reason, Pew reported, is that bisexuals are less likely to see sexual orientation as central to their identity.
Bisexual people are far more likely to marry or cohabit with partners of a different sex. A 2021 Gallup survey found 32 percent of bisexual adult respondents had partners of a different sex, and 5 percent had same-sex partners. Some of that disparity, researchers say, reflects enduring prejudice.
“There’s actually enormous pressure from parents to get married,” Bronski said. “Still. Parents who are younger than me. These are mostly younger, heterosexual parents who are invested in heterosexual relationships.”
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