Travis has had both boyfriends and girlfriends since high school. But when his coworkers discovered his dating history at a board game night, they told him he couldn’t be bisexual. “Bi men don’t exist,” they said. “You’re just a confused gay guy.” Travis, 34, had brought his girlfriend with him that night, but they started calling her his “roommate” after they found out he was bi.
Santiago got an even harsher reaction when he came out to his family. “‘Bisexual’ is just code for insincere gay man” is how he said one of his relatives reacted. “He didn’t use the term ‘gay man,’” 24-year-old Santiago told me, “but I won’t repeat slurs.”
In the past couple of months, I’ve heard dozens of stories like these from bisexual men who have had their sexual orientations invalidated by family members, friends, partners, and even strangers. Thomas was called a “fence-sitter” by a group of gay men at a bar. Shirodj was told that he was “just gay but not ready to come out of the closet.” Alexis had his bisexuality questioned by a lesbian teacher who he thought would be an ally. Many of these same men have been told that women are “all a little bi” or “secretly bi” but that men can only be gay or straight, nothing else.
In other words, bisexual men are like climate change: real but constantly denied.
A full 2% of men identified themselves as bisexual on a 2016 survey from the Centers for Disease Control, which means that there are at least three million bi guys in the United States alone—a number roughly equivalent to the population of Iowa. (On the same survey, 5.5% of women self-identified as bisexual, which comes out to roughly the same number of people as live in New Jersey.) The probability that an entire state’s worth of people would lie about being attracted to more than one gender is about as close to zero as you can get.
But the idea that only women can be bisexual is a persistent myth, one that has been decades in the making. And prejudice with such deep historical roots won’t disappear overnight.
To understand why bisexual men are still being told that their sexual orientation doesn’t exist, we have to go back to the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. That’s when Dr. H. Sharif “Herukhuti” Williams, a cultural studies scholar and co-editor of the anthology Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men, told me that male sexual fluidity got thrown under the bus in the name of gay rights—specifically white, upper-class gay rights.
“One of the byproducts of the gay liberation movement is this…solidifying of the [sexual] binary,” Herukhuti told me, citing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as a pre-Stonewall period of relatively unstigmatized sexual fluidity.
Four decades later, the gay liberation movement created a new type of man—the “modern gay man,” Herukhuti calls him—who was both “different from and similar to” the straight man. As Jillian Weiss, now the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense Fund, wrote in a 2003 review of this same history, “gays and lesbians campaigned for acceptance by suggesting that they were ‘just like you,’ but with the single (but extremely significant exception) of [having] partners of the same sex.” Under this framework, attraction to a single gender was the unifying glue between gay men, lesbians, and straight people—bisexual people were just “confused.”
Bisexual people realized that they would have to form groups and coalitions of their own if they wanted cultural acceptance. But just as bisexual activism was gaining a foothold in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit, and everything changed—especially for bisexual men.
“AIDS forced certain bisexual men out [of the closet], it forced a lot of bisexual men back in, and then it killed off a number of them,” longtime bisexual activist and author Ron Suresha told me.Those deaths hindered the development of male bisexual activism at a particularly critical moment. “A number of men who would have been involved and were involved in the early years of the bi movement died—and they died early and they died quickly,” bisexual writer Mike Syzmanski recalled.
The AIDS crisis also gave rise to one of the most pernicious and persistent stereotypes about bisexual men, namely that they are the “bridge” for HIV transmission between gay men and heterosexual women. As Brian Dodge, a public health researcher at Indiana University, told me, this is a “warped notion” that has “never been substantiated by any real data.” The CDC, too, has debunked the same myth in the specific context of U.S. black communities: No, black men on the “down low” are not primarily responsible for high rates of HIV among black women.
In 2016, bisexual men are still feeling the effects of the virus and the misperceptions around it.
“We’re still underrepresented on the boards of almost all of the national bisexual organizations,” Suresha told me, referring to the fact that women occupy most of the key leadership positions in bisexual activism. And in a new, nationally representative study of attitudes toward bisexual people, Dodge and his research team found that 43% of respondents agreed —at least somewhat—with the statement: “People should be afraid to have sex with bisexual men because of HIV/STD risks.”
For decades, bisexual men have been portrayed—even within the LGBT community—as secretly gay, sexually confused vectors of disease. Is it any wonder that they are still fighting to shed that false image today? It’s hard to convince people that you exist when they barely see you as human.
It’s not that bisexual women have it easy. Both bisexual men and women are much less likely than gay men and lesbians to be out of the closet, with only 28% telling Pew that most of the important people in their life know about their orientation. Collectively, bisexual people also have some of the worst mental health outcomes in the LGBT community and their risk of intimate partner violence is disturbingly high. Bisexual people also face discrimination within the LGBT community while fending off accusations that their orientation excludes non-binary genders. (In response, bisexual educator Robyn Ochs defines “bisexuality” as attraction to “people of more than one sex and/or gender” rather than just to “men and women.”)
And on top of these general problems, bisexual women are routinely hypersexualized, stereotyped as “sluts,” dismissed as “experimenting,” and harassed on dating apps. Their bisexuality is reduced to a spectacle or waved away as a “phase.”
But it is still bisexual men who seem to have their very existence questioned more often.
Suresha pointed me to a 2005 New York Times article with the headline “Straight, Gay, Or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited,” the fallout of which he saw as “a disaster for bi people.” The article reported on a new study “cast[ing] doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men.” The study in question measured the genital arousal of a small sample of men and found, as the Times summarized, that “three-quarters of the [bisexual male] group had arousal patterns identical to those of gay men; the rest were indistinguishable from heterosexuals.”
“It got repeated and repeated in all sorts of media,” Suresha recalled. “People reported it in news briefs on the radio, in print, in magazines, all over the place.”
As the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force noted in its response to the article, the original study had some clear methodological limitations—only 33 self-identified bisexual men were included and participants were recruited through “gay-oriented magazines”—but the Times went ahead and reported that the research “lends support to those who have long been skeptical that bisexuality is a distinct and stable sexual orientation.”
The article fueled the devious narrative that male bisexuality was just homosexuality in disguise. The lived experiences of bisexual men don’t support that narrative—and neither does science—but its power comes from prejudice, not from solid evidence.
And unsurprisingly, the 2005 study’s conclusions did not survive the test of time. In fact, one of the co-authors of that study went on to co-author a 2011 study which found that “bisexual patterns of both subjective and genital arousal” did indeed occur among men. The New York Times Magazine later devoted a feature to the push for the 2011 study, briefly acknowledging the paper’s previous poor coverage. But many in the bisexual community were unimpressed that the scientific community was still being positioned as the authority on the existence of bisexual men.
“Show me the quest for scientific proof that heterosexuality exists,” Amy Andre wrote on the Huffington Post in response to the feature. “It begins and ends with even just one person saying, ‘I’m straight.’”
One of the most tragic things about society’s refusal to accept bisexual men is that we don’t even know why it is still so vehement. Dodge believes that his new study offers some hints—the persistent and widespread endorsement of the HIV “bridge” myth is alarming—but he told me that he would need “more qualitative and more focused research” before he could definitively state that HIV stigma is the primary factor driving negative attitudes toward bisexual men. (Research in this area is indeed sorely lacking. The last major study on the subject prior to the survey Dodge’s team conducted was published in 2002.)
In the meantime, bisexual advocates have developed plenty of compelling theories, many of them focused on the dominance of traditional masculinity. For example, Herukhuti explained that “we live in a society in which boundaries between men are policed because of patriarchy and sexism.” Men are expected to be “kings of their kingdom”—not to share their domain.
“For men to bridge those boundaries with each other—the only way that we can conceive of that is in the sense that these are ‘non-men,’” Herukhuti told me, adding that, in a patriarchal society, gay men are indeed seen as “non-men.” The refusal to accept that men can be bisexual, then, is partly a refusal to accept that someone who is bisexual can even be a man.
Many of the bisexual men I interviewed endorsed this same hypothesis. Kevin, 25, told me that “it’s seen as really unmanly to be attracted to men.” Another Kevin, 26, added that “the core concept of masculinity doesn’t leave room for anything besides extremes.” Justin, in his mid 20s, said that “men are one way and gay men are another way [but] bisexual men are this weird middle ground.”
And Michael, 28, added that bisexual men are “symbolically dangerous”—a “big interior threat to hetero masculinity” because of a shared attraction to women. It’s easy for a straight guy to differentiate himself from the modern gay man, but how can he reassure himself that he is nothing like his bisexual counterpart?
The answer is obvious: He can equate male bisexuality with homosexuality.
The logic needed to balance that equation, Herukhuti explained to me, is disturbingly close to the racist, Jim Crow-era “one-drop rule,” which designated anyone with the slightest bit of African ancestry as black for legal purposes.
“For a male to have had any kind of same-sex sexual experience, they are automatically designated as gay, based on that one-drop rule,” Herukhuti said. “And that taints them.”
To see that logic at work, look no further than the state of HIV research, much of which still groups gay and bisexual men together as MSM, or men who have sex with men. Dodge, who specializes in the area of HIV/AIDS, explained that “when a man reports sexual activity with another man, that becomes the recorded mode of transmission and there’s no data reporting about female or other partners.” Bisexual men have their identities erased—literally—from the resulting data.
“A really easy way to fix this,” Dodge added, “would be to just create a separate surveillance category.”
But when it comes to categories, our society doesn’t seem to do well with more than two—especially when so many still believe that there’s only one right way to be a man.
The situation of bisexual men is not hopeless. Slowly but surely, they are expanding the horizons of masculinity. The silver lining in Dodge’s study, for example, is that there has been a decided “‘shift’ in attitudes toward bisexual men and women from negative to more neutral in the general population” over the last decade or so, although negative attitudes toward bisexual men were still “significantly greater” than the negativity directed at their female peers.
“Put the champagne on the ice,” Dodge joked. “We’re no longer at the very bottom of the barrel but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
That distance will likely be shortened by a rising generation that is far more tolerant of sexual fluidity than their predecessors. Respondents to Dodge’s survey who were under age 25 had more positive attitudes toward bisexuality, perhaps because so many of them openly identify as LGBTQ themselves—some as bisexual, some as pansexual, and some refusing labels altogether.
That growing acceptance is starting to be reflected in movies and on television, once forms of media that were, and still often are, notoriously hostile to bisexual men. A character named Darryl came out as bisexual with a myth-busting song on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and, as GLAAD recently noted, other shows like Shadowhunters and Black Sails are starting to do bi male representation right. The HBO comedy Insecure even made biphobia into a powerful storyline when one straight female character, Molly, shunned her love interest when he told her that he once had oral sex with a guy in a college. But other shows, like House of Cards, are still using a male character’s bisexuality as a way to accentuate his villainy.
Ultimately, bisexual men themselves will continue to be the most powerful force for changing hearts and minds. I asked each bisexual man I interviewed what he would want the world to know about his sexual orientation. Some wanted to clear up specific misconceptions but so many of them simply wanted people to acknowledge that male bisexuality is not fake.
“It’s important that bisexuality be acknowledged as real,” said Martyn, 30, adding that “there’s only so long someone can hold on to a part of themselves that seems invisible before it starts to make them doubt their own sense of self.”
“I am happy being bisexual and I’m not looking for an answer,” said Dan, 19. “I’m not trying things out, I’m not using this as a placeholder to discover my identity. This is who I am. And I love it.”
Samantha Allen is a reporter for Fusion’s Sex+Life vertical. She has a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Emory University and was the 2013 John Money Fellow at the Kinsey Institute. Before joining Fusion, she was a tech and health reporter for The Daily Beast.