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Bi Visibility Day 2021

Bi Visibility Day is celebrated annually on 23rd September, and is a day to celebrate bisexual+ people, raise awareness of issues affecting the bi+ community, and challenge bisexual and biromantic erasure.

Check out this interesting and insightful interview we hosted with Clinical Psychologist, Brendan Dunlop, this Bi Visibility Day - whose research has looked into the mental health issues facing bi+ people.


Hi Brendan - please tell us about you and your work?

My name is Brendan Dunlop and I am a Clinical Psychologist in training, due to graduate (all being well!) in September this year. Clinical Psychologists work with people, couples, groups, and teams that may be experiencing psychological distress, and use evidence-based psychological interventions, therapies and approaches to help people. We also supervise other mental health professionals, engage in research and teaching and are involved in the development and evaluation of mental health services.

As part of our training as Clinical Psychologists, we engage in large pieces of research. My research, alongside a colleague, is focussed on bisexuality and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). NSSI is a behaviour whereby people intentionally hurt themselves, without wanting to end their own lives. Within my research, I aim to identify some psychological factors that could be important for us to know about when considering NSSI for bisexual people.

It feels important for me to name that I am not bisexual myself, though my experiences and identity as a gay man means that I am able to engage with some of the broader experiences of having a minoritized identity. This brings a certain level of researcher-activism to what I do, and is what makes me so passionate to engage with the mental health challenges faced by all gender and sexual minorities, whilst recognising at the same time that I am doing so through my own lens. It is super important I think to always involve people whom you are engaging in research with in the design and conduct of research. To this end we ensured that people who had experience of NSSI from the bisexual community were actively involved in designing and advising us with our study. This is so important because things that I might have missed, ignored or overlooked because of my own personal experiences are brought back into focus during this process, as they should be.

Why is it important to focus on Bi+ Health?

Research has found that bisexual people experience anxiety and depression more than others, are more likely to think about or attempt suicide, and from my some of my own research, are at a higher risk of engaging in NSSI. We are only able to find this out when bisexual people are looked at independently of other sexual minorities. Too often within clinical research, bisexual people are ‘analysed’ together with gay/lesbian/queer people as part of a broader ‘sexual minority’ or ‘LGB+’ group. This is problematic because it means that we sometimes do not get to fully understand and appreciate the risks just for bisexual people. It is also often the case that within these ‘sexual minority’ or ‘LGB+’ groups, there just are not enough bisexual people within the sample to be able to make any meaningful conclusions for bisexual people as an independent group.

When bisexual people are not well-represented within research, or are assimilated into broader groups or categories, we lose the nuances of what is really going on. This erasure of bisexuality within research literature can then create a bit of a cycle: because previous studies have not been able to present meaningful data or conclusions just for bisexual people, future research does not think that bisexual people or voices need to be centre stage. Efforts to actively recruit bisexual people to studies falls off the agenda (consciously or unconsciously!) and we are back to the original problem of poor visibility.

It is vitally important to focus on bisexual health because bisexual people have different experiences in the world when compared to other sexual minorities. Bisexual stigma and discrimination is a huge challenge. Bisexual people often have to navigate the double stigma of not feeling ‘queer enough’ for the LGBTQ+ community, and not feeling ‘straight enough’ for the heterosexual world. These feelings do not materialise from thin air: they are active stories and narratives that exist in our society, that bisexual people can sometimes internalise. These types of experiences may not necessarily be shared with other people from the LGBTQ+ community, so we need to pay attention to how these unique stressors can lead to different physical and mental health outcomes.

Please can you share some of the main findings of your work?

As part of my research I have found that bisexual people have up to 6 times the odds of engaging in NSSI when compared to heterosexual people – which strikes me as a huge difference that we need to pay attention to. Even when comparing bisexual people with gay and lesbian people, bisexual people still had around 4.5 times the odds of engaging in NSSI. So for NSSI at least, there is something really important going on that seems relevant for bisexual people, that we need to know about.

In another study we did, bisexual people told us that others think they are promiscuous, or will cheat on their partner, just because they are bisexual. Or, that bisexuality is ‘just a steppingstone to coming out as gay’. These prejudiced attitudes are very harmful, and we need to recognise how this bierasure from others can impact upon sense of self and sense of belonging to a wider community. A major theme that came from this qualitative interview study we did was that there is a huge challenge for bisexual people when it comes to navigating a heteronormative and binary-focussed world. The obsession that society seems to have with placing people into ‘boxes’ meant that any ‘shades of grey’ tended to be dismissed or invalidated, and once again bisexual people get erased. Participants felt like they did not really belong, and had come to sadly expect rejection from others. We found that being bisexual in and of itself was not necessarily linked to NSSI, however NSSI was used to manage the distress that comes with rejection, invalidation and prejudice from others.

In an online study that we recently completed, we recruited over 200 bisexual people from 25 different countries. We are currently still analysing these results, but so far it seems that self-esteem could be an important factor involved in NSSI for bisexual people. This is the first ever study looking at bisexuality and NSSI, and I hope that this is the beginning of a wealth of research into this phenomenon.

From some of the research I have engaged in so far, it feels to me that focussing upon bisexual people for the answers to bisexual health disparities is, at best, only part of the solution. Bisexual people can experience discrimination and prejudice from other people, from institutions, from healthcare providers and through the perpetuation of powerful social stories. Therefore, a consideration of how society and other people can change, is needed. I am a strong believer in the power of visibility – if you cannot see yourself reflected in others this can be a painfully isolating experience. It is then no wonder that people experience lower self-esteem, lower mood and feelings of anxiety. Increasing bisexual representation across all areas of society can be a powerful way of validating bisexuality as a legitimate identity, and changing the social stories that exist around what it means to be bisexual, and what a bisexual person looks like (hint, they look just like you and me).

How do you think people can be strong allies to the Bi+ community?

There are several simple things I think people can do to be strong allies with the bisexual community. Of course, it is worth mentioning again that I make these recommendations through my own lens, from my research findings thus far, and from talking with and listening to bisexual people.

Firstly, within schools, colleges, universities and workplaces, everyone has a responsibility for calling out biphobic discrimination. Jokes about bisexual people, ridiculing someone for their bisexuality or questioning someone’s ‘reasons’ behind their bisexuality is just not on. Part of this process is recognising that you might be, or have been, part of the problem, and this requires a focus on how you can do better. When you hear someone say something biphobic or discriminatory, call them out, and say it is not on to joke about that part of someone’s identity. A really useful way of calling this out when the discrimination is subtle, or comes in the form of a microaggression, is to say to the person “I do not get it, what do you mean?” or “That’s odd, why did you just do that?” When the person has to explain to you bluntly what the butt of the joke is, or why they behaved in a certain way, they can often then objectively understand just how that joke or behaviour can be offensive.

Another great way to be a bisexual ally is to be mindful of the language you are using. I would recommend for everyone to start adopting gender-neutral and inclusive language. Words such as ‘people’ or ‘folks’ are gender-neutral, and reference to significant others as ‘partners’ is more inclusive. For bisexual people specifically, if someone says to you for example that they are in a relationship, do not make any assumptions. If they use the term ‘partner’, do not assume the gender of their partner.

My final recommendation for being a good ally to the bisexual community is to listen when bisexual people tell you that they have been hurt or invalidated. Dismissing the unpleasant or even traumatic experiences that some bisexual people may have had is to reject their reality. We know from research that bisexual people can feel marginalised by both the LGBTQ+ and heterosexual communities, and often experience hostility because they can ‘pass’ for heterosexual. If a bisexual person says to you that they do not feel like they belong, or are feeling disconnected from others, it is super unhelpful to reply with “Oh but you can pass for straight so it is fine”. Bisexual people are not chameleons that can just blend in wherever they go. A much more helpful response would be to perhaps say “I am here to listen if you need me to”.

On the topic of listening: listen harder if you are part of their pain. It is really difficult to acknowledge that some of the views we hold, or things we do, have contributed (or may still be contributing!) to the negative experiences that some bisexual people have. Recognising this, owning mistakes, genuinely apologising to your bisexual friends and committing to do better is the right way to move forward.

Bisexual+ Health Awareness Month is celebrated annually in March - why is this event important?

Bisexual+ Health Awareness Month is very important because it is so crucial to recognise that bisexual people experience unique stressors and challenges that some other people within the community do not. General minority stress, paired with bisexual-specific difficulties, means that health outcomes for bisexual people are often significantly worse when compared to others.

The pervasive social norms of heteronormativity and binary gender/sexuality can lead to bisexual people feeling as if they are the ‘invisible’ sexuality, or the sexuality that only exists within sexual fantasy or desire. Feelings of invisibility and erasure from the LGBTQ+ world means that conversations about sexuality can therefore often just focus upon being gay/lesbian. The fetishisation of bisexuality by some can generate narratives that bisexuality exists only for the pleasure of others. Imagine how you would feel if your sexuality felt invisible, or existed purely for other people’s pleasure? If people thought that your sexuality was a pit-stop on the journey to discovering your ‘true’ self? Or if you did not feel like you properly belonged to a community that was supposed to love and embrace you? Some of these experiences are not just thought experiments within an online blog, they are the everyday lived reality for some bisexual people.

Bisexual+ Health Awareness Month is important for us to be able to amplify the voices of bisexual folk and highlight the continued discrimination, erasure and social challenges that exist for this group of people. During this month it is important to highlight action plans for specific health challenges that can be followed through all year round, rather than using this as a tokenistic opportunity to tick an ‘equality and diversity’ box. Too often bisexual pride flags can go up on March 1st and come down March 31st. But guess what? Bisexual people live, work, study and exist all year round! We need to do more (as we do with all identities and people within the LGBTQ+ community) to maintain a constant, steady flow of action to tackle health inequality for this group.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I guess it’s worth highlighting that there are many fantastic LGBTQ+ and bisexual-specific groups and resources out there for you to engage with. Here are just a few: BiPride UK, BiPhoria, The Bisexual Index and BiCommunity News. If you want to listen to a great bisexual podcast, then ‘Bisexual Brunch’ is fab.

Brendan J Dunlop
Twitter: @BrendanJDunlop1
Research
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