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The High Cost of “The Invisible Non-Binary”

TimeOut lecture #4 highlights dangers of the bisexual experience

by Laura Shepherd

The Bisexual Women Support Network provides peer support to bisexuals who have experience intimate partner violence. MacNeil's sobering statistics painted a stark portrait of the experience of many bisexuals.
The Bisexual Women Support Network provides peer support to bisexuals who have experience intimate partner violence. MacNeil's sobering statistics painted a stark portrait of the experience of many bisexuals.
Youth Project support worker, Sheena Jamieson, linked data to anecdotal experience in youth, and looked at local efforts to address biphobia and increase support services and resources. [All photos: L. Shepherd]
Youth Project support worker, Sheena Jamieson, linked data to anecdotal experience in youth, and looked at local efforts to address biphobia and increase support services and resources. [All photos: L. Shepherd]
Teaghan (Tia) Larkin presenting her Master's research on coming out as bisexual at Thursday's TimeOut lecture, "Exploring the B..."
Teaghan (Tia) Larkin presenting her Master's research on coming out as bisexual at Thursday's TimeOut lecture, "Exploring the B..."
Alex Todd of the Halifax Bi-, Pan- and Multisexual Connection, explored online effort to compile bisexual and ally resources during Thursday's panel presentation at the Central Library.
Alex Todd of the Halifax Bi-, Pan- and Multisexual Connection, explored online effort to compile bisexual and ally resources during Thursday's panel presentation at the Central Library.
A slide exploring a common biphobic stereotype, from Thursday's TimeOut lecture, "Exploring the B...", Paul O'Regan Hall, Halifax Central Library.
A slide exploring a common biphobic stereotype, from Thursday's TimeOut lecture, "Exploring the B...", Paul O'Regan Hall, Halifax Central Library.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) -- Halfway through Thursday’s TimeOut lecture, “Exploring the B….”, Collie MacNeil, of the Bisexual Women Support Network, flashed the statistics on the screen – increased rates of suicidal ideation, twice the rates of forceable and coercive rape or assault, widespread social isolation and community marginalization. If you walked in the Central Library’s Paul O’Regan Hall at that moment, unaware, you might conclude the subject of discussion was trans people, or trans women. The parallel is unmistakable.

In fact, MacNeil and her panel-mates were exploring the bisexual experience, both within the LGBTQI community, and in society at large.

They painted a disturbing picture of distrust and erasure directed at bisexuals, with a high individual cost paid in violence, depression, anxiety and self-harm. The panel focused on women’s experiences but spoke to the sustained ambivalence and hostility about bisexuality in general that is prevalent within Halifax’s LGTBQI community. They showed how this is both echoed and informed by larger social conventions and prejudices.

Halifax’s Pride festivities, like the community it celebrates, have long been criticized for overlooking or marginalizing bisexuals. In programming this lecture, sponsors NSRAP (along with partners, the NS Legal Action Project; the Halifax Bi-, Pan- and Multisexual Connection; and the Bisexual Women Support Network) responded to the critique. The panel members appearing at Thursday’s lecture – each an organized and articulate presenter - seized the opportunity, delivering the most provocative and important lecture of this year’s TimeOut series.

Teaghan (Tia) Larkin began by presenting the results of her Master’s research (completed at MSVU), which collected and analyzed the coming-out experience of bisexual women.

“Bisexual,” Larkin, began, “is an umbrella term.” At root, it refers to those whose sexual attractions do not fit into exclusive or distinct categories or patterns, like same-sex or same-gender relationships, for example. Some terms, like “pansexual”, seek to include trans and/or non-binary genders, or to override an assumed cisgender bias. There is a range of functional synonyms for ‘bisexual’.

Within queer culture, certain stereotypes persist. Bisexuality is often assumed, particularly by those who have come out as queer, to signify lack of commitment to an orientation/identity, and by extension, uncertain fitness for community membership.

A common trope of popular culture is that bisexuals “need” relations with both binary sexes. This translates most acutely as pervasive insecurity in monogamous intimate relations. Partners commonly display distrust of their bisexual partner’s relationship commitment. Bisexual women, relative to their straight or lesbian peers, experience a highly disproportionate rate of Intimate Partner Violence.

A common campus trope is of one who explores bisexuality as a fad or fashion – an expression of the normative belief in binary sexual orientation, and the common regard for the amorphous nature of bisexuality as immature or selfish. In challenging the binary categories that underlie our conception, discourse and practice of sexual orientation, bisexuals are a kind of parallel to those whose gender is non-binary. The reaction they receive is just as incredulous and hostile.

Larkin found that bisexuals are encouraged to hide, even in coming out. Many mask their pansexuality with general euphemisms – “queer” is the default choice. They consistently report doing so to avoid the scrutiny, distrust and marginalization that accompanies disclosure as bi.

Despite a healthy literature, the product of the coming out industry, there are few available resources to assist someone coming out as bisexual. For this reason, Larkin explained, the support and acceptance of family and friends, intimate partners and colleagues is critical. Too often, her research found, that support, and the ability to build an affirmative network around it, are lacking or limited in the experience of her respondents.

If it is challenging to the LGBTQI movement in Halifax to be inclusive of people of colour, of non-anglophones, and of others, the challenge to be inclusive in sampling for original documentary research in the community is even greater. Larkin acknowledged this challenge, which impacted her sample.

Following Larkin, Alex Todd began with her experience in rural New Brunswick, where queer adults were invisible. Biphobia viewed bisexuality through the lens of men’s titillation, or as deliberately provocative and exhibitionist.

A founder of the Halifax Bi-, Pan- and Multisexual Connection, Todd explored organized online efforts to build a support network and resource base for bisexuals coming out, and for their allies in supporting them. It would have been hard for a participant in Halifax’s queer community to hear about strategies for individual support Todd and her colleagues have mobilized without recognizing the need for that same effort in the community at large.

Bisexual Support Network co-founder, Collie MacNeil, presented a disturbing statistical portrait of the impact of distrust, exclusion and misunderstanding on people who are bisexual. Her organization provides peer recovery support to bisexual victims of intimate partner violence.

Half of bisexual women experience severe physical violence. One-third experience coercive rape or assault – over twice the rate of their lesbian counterparts. Over 60% experience violence, stalking or harassment from former partners.

Bisexuals have difficulty accessing community and medical support and treatment services. Medical professionals, as much as the public at large, tend to treat bisexuals with skepticism and distrust.

Incidence of anxiety, depression and PTSD are significantly higher among bisexual women than among either straight or lesbian counterparts.

“The data,” final panelist Sheena Jamieson, explained, “confirms the anecdotal evidence of persistent stereotypes…which youth are vulnerable to adopting as narratives.” The persistence of stereotypes replicates a difficult coming out for many youth.

Jamieson, who works as a support worker at the Youth Project, provided important information and links to locally produced and compiled support resources, grounding the online communities of Todd and MacNeil in available and accessible local sources.

We knew bisexuality has been marginalized in the LGBTQI community. Without this panel, few untouched directly would know the high individual cost and consequence of biphobia, nor recognize its connection to more high profile inclusion efforts, as with trans folks.

Opening the window on the real experience of bisexuality and the door on collective support solutions is the singular achievement of the “Exploring the B…” panel. Ours would be a poorer Pride and a meaner community without their contribution. They deserve to be heard, and heard again.


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