Tag Archives: Bisexuality

Bisexuality and mental health

Did you know? Over 40% of bisexual people have considered suicide

Graphic by Shiri Eisner (blog, tumblr).

This was a difficult post to write. The subject matter and my real life circumstances were just a little too closely matched for comfort!

I submitted this to the editors at uni(di)versity a full week late, because I was dealing with significant anxiety and the brain fog and unproductivity that often accompany an extended period of acute, generalized anxiety for me. Every time this happens, despite my personal politics of openness about neurodivergence and accepting help when I need it, I feel ashamed and weak and vulnerable. When my neurodivergences impact my ability to be productive, I feel like I’ve failed. I haven’t been strong enough to keep myself fully functional, I haven’t been disciplined enough to produce work despite the anxiety, and I haven’t been self-aware enough to prevent the anxiety from spiraling out of control.

This is relevant because I know how frustrating it is to read posts full of information about how to make things better when you are stuck in the quicksand of things not getting better. As much as this post is meant to be an encouragement for all of us to be aware of the issues around mental health (particularly as they differentially impact members of the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and otherwise non-monosexual community), I also want to acknowledge that you might read this and feel completely discouraged at the end because you can’t do anything about the bad situation, because you are experiencing your own convergence of circumstance and neurodivergence, or because you’re barely keeping your head above water. If that’s the case, I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not a freak, you are not weak, and you are not broken.

I suspect that many readers of this blog experience some form of mental health concern. A blog devoted to issues of diversity in post-secondary institutions is likely, I suspect, to have a readership of immigrant, queer, racialized, disabled, fat, non-binary and otherwise non-normative folks, and we are a vulnerable bunch. (As an example, The Straight recently ran a piece focusing on the vicious circle of depression that many immigrants experience.)

It can be particularly difficult to seek help or accommodations as a member of a marginalized group in a post-secondary setting. Seeking help requires outing ourselves as members of yet another marginalized group – the neurodivergent, often referred to as the “mentally ill” or those “having mental health issues.”

In academia, especially, this can be extremely challenging. We’re academics, right? We’re here to use our minds. And when our minds seem to be functioning in ways that society has declared are not normal, or when our minds stop functioning in the way we know they should (like when I slide into a depression, or a long period of anxiety), it seems to call our whole lives into question.

We may already be facing challenges in the classroom from teachers and colleagues who perceive us as less intelligent or less capable because of our identities. Asking for accommodations, or even talking openly about our neurodivergences, can be extremely challenging.

And yet, talking about mental health – being open with our own struggles and looking for help when we need it – is one of the best ways to improve the situation. (Though I say this, and say it with conviction, I also want to be clear that if you cannot or do not want to talk about your mental health, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not your job to fix the context you’re in!)

Mental health has been a hot topic in many places around the internet lately. The Frogman wrote an excellent piece on depression, focusing on teens and how they can access resources. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half wrote the long-awaited “Depression Part Two,” which sparked conversations all over the internet. When I read Part Two, I felt sick – it hit far too close to home. The Belle Jar wrote another hit-me-in-the-gut piece about self-loathing that touched on some really important (and rarely talked about) pieces of the mental health puzzle for a lot of people, such as the intense feelings of shame and anxiety that can come with neurodivergence.

The piece that sparked the idea for this post was Miri at Brute Reason, who recently wrote about “small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued.”*

As a mental health advocate, and a person with an anxiety disorder and a history of depression that includes self-harm and suicidality, I am very interested in building these kinds of communities for myself, and for the people around me. I am also a bisexual activist, and am deeply aware that the bisexual community is at a disproportionately high risk of mental health concerns. More than 40 per cent of bisexual individuals report having considered suicide (in contrast to 8.5 per cent of straight people and 27 per cent of gay people).

Some of the societal factors that increase our vulnerability can be exacerbated in post-secondary situations, where active “Gay-Straight Alliances” do great work but linguistically exclude us, and where classroom discussions often ignore or overlook liminal identities in discussions of orientation. It is rare to find a course devoted to bisexual (or other non-monosexual) orientations, though I’ve seen multiple courses on lesbian literature, gay literature, and gay and lesbian film come through my student centre. These courses are great, and I’d like to see more of them! But I’d also like to see something like Margaret Robinson’s Intro to Bisexual Theory taught more often and in more institutions.

Although each of Miri’s five points about valuing mental health ring true for me, the differential risk faced by the bisexual community means that I want to focus on her final point:

 5. Understand how social structures – culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc. – influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups – the poor, people of color, etc. – face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups – women, queer people, etc. – have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media – which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

One structural element that we need to start thinking seriously about is how bisexual erasure, invisibility, and monosexism impact the bisexual and non-monosexual communities. The bisexual community is already at increased risk of mental health issues, including the aforementioned disproportionately high risk of suicidality.

Shiri Eisner shared an excerpt from her book “Bi: Notes For A Bisexual Revolution” on her blog. This section is an analysis of the 2011 Bisexuality Invisibility Report and addresses, among other things, the differential risk of mental health concerns (including suicidality) for the bisexual and otherwise non-monosexual community. Her analysis provides an accessible look at a complex and often-overlooked series of issues. Regarding mental health she notes that:

whereas “[i]n nonurban areas, lesbians and bisexual women experience similar levels of frequent mental distress, the odds of frequent mental distress decrease significantly for lesbians in urban areas, while [becoming] nearly double for bisexual women” (emphasis in original). The researchers theorize that the reason for this is that gay and lesbian communities are more well-organized in urban areas, contributing to the isolation of bisexual people who experience rejection while seeking support, once outside of their home communities.

This is critical in understanding the situation faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and other non-monosexual individuals in post-secondary settings. Feelings of isolation and rejection can exacerbate emotional and mental distress, and it can be particularly challenging to be surrounded by groups and events that do not seem to have a space for you.

Classmates of mine have reported skepticism from university-employed psychologists and doctors regarding their sexual orientation (both as non-monosexual individuals and a polyamorous individuals – another under-supported identity group). One of my friends was recently asked by a doctor whether he has “homosexual or heterosexual sex” – in order to be recognized as a non-monosexual queer, he had to insert himself into that binary forcibly, and if he had been low on resources or feeling vulnerable, he may not have been able to take that risk.

These moments of erasure can have serious side-effects for individuals who then remain unseen and unrecognized as non-monosexual, and don’t receive the information and support that they need.

Eisner’s analysis offers further information that should make us, as academics, sit up and take notice. Not only are bisexual individuals at increased risk of mental health concerns across the board, we are also likely to have lower levels of education, and bisexual support services are significantly underfunded. In fact, Eisner notes that:

“in years 2008 and 2009, out of over 200 million dollars given by US foundations to LGBT organizations as grants, not a single dollar in all the country went towards funding bisexual-specific organizations or projects.” This “LGBT” money did not “trickle down” to bisexuals, either: a survey conducted by the editors of the report, found that of the LGBT organizations in San Francisco willing to reply to a survey about bisexuality, most do not offer content that is targeted specifically towards bisexuals.

This is reinforced by another finding: whereas bisexual people make up the single largest group among LGBT’s, “only 3-20% of the people accessing LGBT-focused services are bisexual.”**

I believe that the systemic oppression faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and otherwise non-monosexual individuals is something that can be changed. We can encourage bisexual youth in high school so that they feel confident entering post-secondary, and we can support them once they get here. We can become aware of (and advocate for) the support groups that do exist in our communities. In Calgary, Possibilities hosts a monthly discussion group, a monthly coffeeshop social night, and a monthly Community Cafè (in collaboration with Calgary Outlink) and at the University of Calgary, the Q Centre is explicitly bi-friendly. PFLAG Canada offers a list of resources for bisexual individuals. Acknowledging our existence in your everyday language, and welcoming our inclusion in your spaces and events goes a long way to changing those feelings of isolation and rejection that Eisner cites.

It’s always difficult to make space. The things that are supposed to be secrets – unacceptable or incomprehensible identities, circumstances or struggles – are much easier to keep quiet about than to speak openly. But if you have the time, and the privilege, and the resources to be vocal – consider doing it. You could make a huge difference in your own or somebody else’s life.

And even if you will never be vocal, be informed. For example, discussions of “bisexual privilege” that fail to recognize the incredible cost of “passing” as straight are damaging and contribute to the monosexist dominant culture – know it, so that you don’t contribute to it!

Wrapping up this post, I find myself struggling with the strong desire to write “5 ways to make things better for the neurodivergent bisexuals around you!” I want to end on a positive note and provide a road map to a better place. I think that those kinds of didactic posts, while useful, can also be frustrating to read and limiting.

Instead, I will just admit that I have a pretty big horse in this race. I want things to change, but I don’t actually have the solutions. I am one of the neurodivergent bisexuals that Eisner writes about. Miri offers a good starting point for changing the culture around mental health, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. How do you think bisexual folks find the post-secondary experience where you are? How about the culture at your post-sec regarding mental health? What would you like to see change? How do you think we can make that change happen? What have your own experiences of neurodivergence and/or bisexuality been?

*Although I think that the language of “mental illness” can be problematic, and is often used to inaccurately frame neurodivergence as uniformly “ill” (for example, many people with ADHD, a learning disability, or an Autism spectrum “disorder” may not view themselves as disordered or ill), I do agree with Miri’s call for communities with space for neurodivergence and mental health issues of all flavours, from the unusual but delightful (such as a neurodivergent individual who does not experience their neurodivergence as a problem) to the bitter and harmful (neurodivergences that are experienced as illness or disorderings, which is how I would categorize my own depressive tendencies when I become self-harming or suicidal).

**Edited to more accurately attribute this quote.

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New politics, old tensions: the invisibility of bisexual identities in research

I was at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria from June 5-10, attending “Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement, and Knowledge Mobilization,” taught by Aimée Morrison.

I love both the course and the set-up of the DHSI as a whole. I love the diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, disciplines and interests in my class. I love the professor, and the collaborative approach to learning. There’s a lot to love.

Refreshingly, there also seems to be an undercurrent of privilege-aware, feminist thought, at least in the course that I’m attending. We’ve talked about a variety of feminist issues, including the ethical treatment of marginalized research collaborators, and some of my classmates are vocal advocates for challenging the privileging of academic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. It’s been a very engaging, exciting week so far.

One reason that there is a different “feel” to this event, even though it is still clearly academic, is that none of us will receive credit for the work, the professors are volunteering their time, and the courses have a feeling of flattened hierarchy – as Aimée put it, “autodidactic communalism.” This is learning for the love of learning, sharing skills for the love of the skills and of the sharing, and professional development growing out of a passion for this new and developing interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Basically – DHSI: I would recommend it.

While there, I had an interesting conversation with one of my classmates, Elise Chenier, and it highlighted one of the struggles that the bisexual community faces in being recognized and legitimized. This struggle is found in the tendency of many academic scholars to assume or read homosexuality into historical accounts of non-heterosexual behaviour, either missing or glossing over the potential for bisexuality.

Elise has worked with A LOT: Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, and is currently working on research regarding mixed-ethnicity marriages between Asian men and white women in the 1950s and 60s.

She described the genesis of this project as being found in a story that she heard during her research for A LOT. The story was of a woman who was living with a Chinese man, whose male partner and butch lover had an altercation. This made my bi activist ears perk up, since this seemed like a situation that might be described as bisexual. I wondered if other women were in similar situations and asked if there were any mentions of bisexual women and their stories in her work.

It turns out, there are not.

None of the women self-identified as bisexual, and I nodded and said that it can be dangerous or difficult for bisexual women to come out in lesbian communities, especially if those communities are critical to their social support networks. Elise felt that this was inserting contemporary politics into a historical moment where they were not an issue. Bisexuality was simply not recognized as an identity category in the same way that it is now: none of the women self-identified as bisexual, and that’s that.

In this instance I think that Elise has a point about reading contemporary politics into historical moments where they don’t apply, where the women being interviewed are describing experiences that happened before the gay rights movement, before we had a cultural understanding of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality as they exist in the cultural consciousness now.

And yet, is it possible that none of the women self-identified as bisexual not only because they may not have had the language at the time, but also because they did not see space for a bisexual identity in the current research?

So often we assume that these “contemporary political issues” are still not relevant. The issue of bisexuality is regularly ignored or erased, subsumed into the more easily understood gay or lesbian movements. I’d like to push a little bit on the assumption that bisexuality doesn’t need to be actively pursued or acknowledged by scholars engaging with queer histories.

As Elise mentioned in our conversation, it is possible that assumptions underpinning the formation of questions might lead to possible bisexual identifications being overlooked, or not given space for acknowledgment. Questions that imply an expected answer, or interpretations that are coloured by assumptions or misconceptions happen easily, and often without any malicious intent. But they are still problematic, and they still make it incredibly difficult for bisexuals to see themselves situated in a history that seems entirely monosexual, where even queer histories are often written as gay and lesbian histories.

Bisexual activists like Brenda Howard have, from the very beginning, been instrumental in the Pride movement that now so often ignores or erases us. Despite these early activists – Howard was openly bisexual and also the founder of pride parades as we know them today – bisexuality has been and often still is viewed as “dangerous and contrary to gay liberation” (Rust[1]).

These beliefs can be tricky, sneaking into our interpretations of historical figures and making it hard to recognize bisexuality in instances where it may exist. Although I do not believe that we can ever tell a person who claims one identity (gay or straight, for instance) that they are bisexual because of their behaviours, which may be influenced by all kinds of factors, I do believe that we should not assign a label (gay or straight, for instance!) when a person’s behaviours may indicate a bisexual, pansexual or fluid orientation and when they have not claimed that label for themselves.

We should be careful not to coercively assign bisexual labels in our efforts for visibility, but we should make every effort to carve out space for bisexual readings of historical events and people. It should be possible to encounter a bisexual history, because it is absolutely true that this bisexual history exists. We just have to stop pushing everyone to one side or the other of the gay/straight binary.

This is one reason why the bisexual pride movement, which did not exist so visibly in previous decades, is so important. We have Faith Cheltenham now, for instance, taking up the work of early bisexual activists like Brenda Howard. There is a tension between bisexual women and some lesbians who view us, at best, as simply incomprehensible. This tension is not new, and it will not go away unless we continue to confront and explore the ways in which bisexual history and identity is overlooked and erased.

I am optimistic about this endeavour. Elise and I had a fantastic conversation about bisexual invisibility, identity politics, Jack Halberstam, trans* invisibility within the historical lesbian movement, internalized biphobia and research ethics. This kind of collaboration can only lead to better understanding and more visibility. At least, that’s my hope. When I look at rates of suicidality and mental health concerns among bisexual individuals (the topic of my next post), I know that something has to change. Maybe this is part of that change. Fingers crossed!

[1] Rust, Paula C. “Neutralizing the Political Threat of the Marginal Woman: Lesbians’ Beliefs about Bisexual Women.” The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 30, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), pp. 214-228

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Coming out of the liminal closet

Liminal identities present specific challenges to a post-secondary student. These often-invisible identities are perceived as being “between” two more easily recognizable categories. My own bisexual identity exists outside of the gay-straight binary, and my genderqueer identity exists outside of the man-woman binary. And the construction of “betweenness,” so common in discussions of these identity categories, is frustrating. I am not a Frankensteinian monster, bits of this and bits of that mashed together and animated. I am my own thing. My identity is a real thing. I am a real person.

Not that you’d know it, looking at the system I operate within.

There are no genderqueer bathrooms, so I slide myself over into one half of a binary that is false and misleading, denying my identity so that I can pee.

The University of Calgary has the Q Centre, an inclusive space for anyone in the QUILTBAG,* and a space that is now explicitly bi-friendly.** But there is no “bisexual” in GSAs, the Gay-Straight Alliance groups that are doing such good work. I’m assured that I am welcome, but unless I speak up about my liminal identity, I will be assumed to be straight if I mention my boyfriend, or gay if I mention my girlfriend. (People read me as a woman unless I speak up about my genderqueerness – that liminality is even less visible to most people than my bisexuality.)

Dan Savage “tells the truth” about bisexuality, which is that “it’s a fundamental truth … that it is a phase … it is a choice.” After saying that bisexuality is a choice in that clip, he goes on to talk about how gay and straight identities are not a choice, there’s no switch to flip – unless you’re bisexual, and you exist in that liminal space between and outside of the binary.

My bookshelves, full of the books that are cited in my research papers, include writing about “gay and lesbian literature,” “gay and lesbian film,” “gay and lesbian media.”

Class discussions often swing around to “men and women” – their differences, their similarities, their conditioning, their unique intersections of marginalization and oppression – and that’s fine. Men and women do exist. They do have similarities and differences, they are socialized and conditioned in different ways, and they occupy a variety of intersections of privilege and marginalization. Those conversations are not, in themselves, a problem. But those conversations are often the only ones that happen in class. There is no space for non-binary gender identities in those discussions.

Coming out of these liminal closets can be exhausting. And because liminal identities are so often invisible, it is not enough to come out once. Instead, it is an ongoing, constant process of coming out. Or, sometimes, it’s a painful choice to stay in the closet for that class, that conversation. It is not possible to always be the person challenging the binary; none of us have infinite resources, and we should not be expected to always be the ones to speak up. As Dayna pointed out in this space last week, “Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue.” And it is not always just about whether we have the resiliency to be The Bisexual or The Genderqueer in a specific class – coming out as a bisexual is uniquely challenging. AfterEllen has a fantastic piece (with some great links to resources) about how difficult it is to come out as bisexual, and the comments prove the truth of the article.

We live in a world full of binaries, but those binaries fail to account for a huge number of us. It’s hard to see us. It’s hard to understand us (even I have trouble understanding myself!), and it’s hard to remember us because it’s just so easy to talk about things in terms of the binaries that we’re so strongly conditioned to operate within.

But we’re here. We always have been.


*Queer/Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer

**Huge shout-out to the Q Centre, whose coordinators responded beautifully to community members’ concerns about biphobic comments being made by some Q Centre volunteers. A public meeting was held, a discussion was had, the Q Centre reached out to the bisexual community in Calgary for input, and changes were made. It’s not all invisibility and erasure – there are moments of hope and progress!

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