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Updated 18 March 2014

Straight, gay or bi?

Many people are 100% gay or lesbian and are drawn sexually and emotionally only to partners of the same sex. But for many people it's not that clear. Are you one of them?

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Many people are 100% gay or lesbian and are drawn sexually and emotionally only to partners of the same sex. Others are completely heterosexual, bonding in sexual and intimate relationships only with people of another sex.

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But what about everybody else? A significant percentage of people do not fit neatly into either of these categories, because they experience sexual and emotional attractions and feelings for people of different genders at some point during their lives. For lack of a better term, they are called bisexuals, although, many people prefer to call themselves “pansexual”, “non – preferential”, “sexually fluid”, “ambisexual” or “omnisexual”.

The Kinsey scale
The Kinsey scale of zero to six was developed by sex researchers to describe sexual orientation as a continuum. Heterosexual people are at zero on the scale, gay and lesbian people are at six, at the other end of the scale and everyone in between, from one to five, is bisexual. According to Kinsey, people who fall at one or two on the scale have primarily heterosexual sexual and affectional relationships and desires, but have some attraction and experiences with same-sex partners as well.

People at three on the scale are approximately equally attracted to both men and women. People at four and five on the Kinsey Scale choose primarily same-sex partners, but are not completely gay or lesbian and have some heterosexual tendencies and relationships as well.

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Who is bisexual?
As you can see, there is no simple definition of bisexuality, and bisexual people are a very diverse group. Some bisexual people are committed to monogamous, long-term relationships, others have more than one partner concurrently in a variety of arrangements. There are several theories about different models of bisexual behaviour. J.R. Little identifies at least 13 types of bisexuality, as defined by sexual desires and experiences. They are:

Alternating bisexuals: may have a relationship with a man, and then after that relationship ends, may choose a female partner for a subsequent relationship and many go back to a male partner next.

Circumstantial bisexuals: primarily heterosexual, but will choose same sex partners only in situations where they have no access to other sex partners, such as when in jail, in the military, or in a gender-segregated school.

Concurrent relationship bisexuals: have primary relationship with one gender only but have other casual or secondary relationships with people of another gender at the same time.

Conditional bisexuals: either straight or gay/lesbian, but will switch to a relationship with another gender for financial or career gain or for a specific purpose, such as young straight males who become gay prostitutes or lesbians who get married to men in order to gain acceptance from family members or to have children.

Emotional bisexuals: have intimate emotional relationships with both men and women, but only have sexual relationships with one gender.

Integrated bisexuals: have more than one primary relationship at the same time, one with a man and one with a woman.

Exploratory bisexuals: either straight or gay/lesbian, but have sex with another gender just to satisfy curiosity or “see what it’s like”.

Hedonistic bisexuals: primarily heterosexual but engage in gay or lesbian sex only when under the influence of drugs and / or alcohol.

Isolated bisexuals: 100% straight or gay / lesbian now but has previously had sexual experiences with another gender in the past.

Latent bisexuals: completely straight or gay lesbian in behaviour, but have strong desire for sex with another gender, but have never acted on it.

Motivational bisexuals:straight women who have sex with other women only because a male partner insists on it to titillate him.

Transitional bisexuals: temporarily identify as bisexual while in the process of moving from being straight to being gay or lesbian, or going from being gay or lesbian to being heterosexual.

Many of these people might not call themselves bisexual, but because they are attracted to and have relationships with both men and women, they are in fact bisexual.

While literally millions of people are bisexual, most keep their sexual orientation secret, so bisexual people as a group are nearly invisible in society. Gay men and lesbian women have long recognised the need to join together, create community, and to organise politically. Long years of hard work have led to significant gains in political and human rights, as well as a visible and thriving gay and lesbian community.

Bisexual people have been much slower to come out of the closet, create community, and form political and social networks to gain visibility and political and social networks to gain visibility and political clout. Many bisexual people have spent decades working in gay and lesbian organisations, and in recent years, bisexuals have become more accepted as part of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community. However, the rigid dichotomy between gay and straight has caused many bisexuals to feel alienated and rejected by gay men and lesbian women, and in recent years many independent bisexual political and social groups have sprung up.

Bisexuals suffer more from social isolation
Many bisexual people complain that they feel like outsiders in both the straight and gay/lesbian worlds, and that they can’t fit in anywhere, feeling isolated and confused. Studies have shown that bisexual people suffer from social isolation even more than gay men or lesbians because they lack any community where they can find acceptance and role models.

Many gay men feel that bisexual men are really gay, that they are just in denial about being gay, and that they should “just get over it.” Many straight men are homophobic and hate and fear both bisexual and gay men, often victimising them with harassment and physical violence.

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Many straight women reject bisexual men out of misguided fears that they have Aids and admonish them to “stop sitting on the fence and make up their minds”. Bisexual women are often distrusted by lesbians for “sleeping with the enemy,” hanging onto heterosexual privileges through relationships with men and betraying their allegiance to women and feminism. Straight women often reject bisexual women out of fear they will make sexual overtures and try to “convert” them to being bisexual.

Bisexuality an authentic sexual orientation
Both the straight and gay/lesbian communities seem to have only two possible models of bisexuality, neither of which represents bisexual people accurately. The first is the “transitional model” of bisexuality, believing that all bisexuals are actually gay or lesbian but are just on the way to eventually coming out as gay. The other is the “pathological model”, that bisexuals are neurotic or mentally unstable because they are in conflict trying to decide whether they are straight or gay/lesbian, and that they just can’t make a decision.

Both models see bisexuality as a temporary experience or a “phase” born out of confusion rather than an authentic sexual orientation equally as valid as heterosexuality or homosexuality. Some people see bisexuality as inherently subversive because it blurs the boundaries, confronting both heterosexuals and gay men and lesbian women with sexual ambiguity.

As a result, bisexuality challenges concepts of sexuality, traditional relationship and family structures, monogamy, gender and identity. Bisexuals cannot conform to the ethics of either the gay or straight world or they would not be bisexual. Instead they must re-invent personal lifestyles and relationships that serve their needs even though they don’t fit anyone else’s rules.

Bisexuals must invent their own identity
Some researchers have noted that being bisexual is in some ways similar to being biracial. Mixed-race persons generally don’t feel comfortable or accepted by people of either ethnic group, feeling that they don’t belong or fit in anywhere, as their existence challenges the very concept of race. Like bisexual people, they spend most of their lives moving between two communities that they don’t really understand or accept them. Like biracial people, bisexual people must struggle to invent their own identities to correspond to their own experience. Forming a bisexual identity helps bisexual people to structure, to make sense of, and to give meaning and definition to their reality.

Stages of Bisexual identity:
For most bisexuals, there are at least four steps or stages to fully acknowledging and becoming comfortable with their identities as bisexuals.

1. Confusion over sexual orientation.
Most bisexual people start out feeling very confused about their attraction towards people of both sexes, questioning their own reality and wondering “Is something wrong with me?” Some spend their entire lives in this stage, hiding their sexual orientation, feeling isolated and alone with the inner turmoil over their “dual attractions.”

Many go through life identifying as straight or gay/lesbian in order to be accepted and make sense of their sexual orientation. Because their own experience does not conform to either community, they feel intense external pressure to choose one and identify with it. Without any language to frame their own reality, and no visible role models or community available to them, bisexual people must have sufficient self – confidence and belief in their own identity in order to eventually transcend this stage.

2. Discovery of the bisexual label and choosing to identify as bisexual.
Almost all bisexual people acknowledge that discovering the label “bisexual” was pivotal in understanding and accepting their sexual orientation. Most experience extreme relief when they hear the word “bisexual” for the first time, because they finally have a word that mirrors their experience and feelings. For some, the negative stereotypes of bisexuals as “promiscuous,” “fence sitters,” neurotic or vectors of Aids prevent them from identifying with the label or claiming it for themselves, but most agree that it comes closer than any other language to describing their lives. Instead of rejecting the label, many bisexuals invent their own definition and create bisexual lifestyles that fit their individual lives.

3. Setting into and maintaining a bisexual identity.
For many bisexual people, this step is the most difficult. Intellectually, they feel good about being bisexual, but emotionally, they experience extreme conflict living in the real world as bisexual. Often scorned by family and friends and rejected by spouses or potential partners for being bisexual, they find that to develop and maintain a bisexual identity requires inner strength, self – reliance, confidence and independence. Many overcome these obstacles by forming their own community, finding accepting friends and lovers and staying out of the closet despite the consequences.

4. Transforming adversity.
For most bisexuals, coming out and staying out of closet is an on – going process, which must be repeated with every new social situation, workplace, friend and lover. Many see this process as the most important form of political action, creating visible role models and a cohesive bisexual community. Because most bisexuals have suffered through the first three stages alone and in silence, they want to make it easier for other bisexuals to recognise and embrace their sexual orientation without years of inner turmoil and loneliness.

Many also get involved in bisexual political organisations as a way to increase bisexual visibility and promote bisexuality as a viable identity. Just as gay men and lesbians were only able to win some rights through fighting in both the social and political arenas, bisexuals will only win political and human rights through coming out of the closet and developing political clout.

What does this mean for you?
Does any of this sound familiar? Are you struggling with ambivalence or confusion over your sexual orientation? Or are you ready to embrace a bisexual orientation? Are you seeking community to share your developing identity with others? If so, reach out for support now. Check out one of the many bisexual and questioning support groups listed in the back of this pamphlet, to find a safe place to express your feelings and meet others who are going through similar experiences.

One-to-one counselling or therapy can also be helpful in sorting out feelings and gaining clarity and self – confidence. Be careful to seek out a non – judgmental therapist who is supportive of bisexuality and has expertise in bisexual issues. And joining bisexual social or political groups is also a great way to see visible role models and to allow your bisexual identity to evolve in a way that fits you. And last, but certainly not least, there are now many excellent books on bisexuality, which help you understand and fully embrace your sexual orientation. -

(Dr Elna McIntosh, former Health24 sexologist, updated May 2010)

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