Denise Ingram is used to explaining herself, and it shows. She speaks with the measured evenness and experienced passion, the professional restraint and distant hurt of a sociologist who did plenty of her coursework outside of a classroom.
“If you say you’re gay, very few people say, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ Bisexuals have to come out every time they walk into a room,” she says. “I get it from both communities. We like to joke that’s the one thing straights and gays agree on: They don’t understand bisexuals.”
Ingram, 41, grew up in Jamaica—where being anything other than straight is punishable with jail time but is more often handled by mob violence—and she spent the ’80s and ’90s advocating for gay rights in New York City, where she identified as a lesbian before coming out as bisexual. She feels connected to the LGBT community—entitled to the connection even—and she remembers the times when no one in the movement was accepted by the mainstream, when no one thought to check her gay credentials.
“When the bigotry comes from the straight community, it’s hurtful. But when it comes from the gay community, it’s worse—because they should understand,” says Ingram, who now lives in Bensalem. “This is the experience of the gay community—having the straight community tell them they’re wrong, they don’t exist. For me, it feels like personal betrayal. I feel like ‘I was there with you, in the beginning,’ and then I hear ‘What has bisexuality done for the movement?’ That just floors me. The history has been rewritten.”
Ingram met her husband of three years, James Klawitter, at a meeting of BiUnity, a Philly-based bisexual support network. They were both prepared for the onslaught of questions from friends and family, some well-meaning and others hostile, when they became engaged: “Are you straight now?” (They are not.) “Are you going to miss the other gender?” (No, they have a polyamorous marriage.) “Do all bi couples have poly marriages?” (Most don’t, although some do. Same as gay and straight people.) “Are you straight now?” (No, still not straight.)
Klawitter, 31, had a lifetime of experience to prepare him for the double-takes when he married Ingram. But even so, he was surprised by the reactions he got when he went on a date with a man over the summer.
“I’ve had family members who I thought were accepting, but no, no. As soon as I got married they just expected me to be straight,” says Klawitter, who is on the board of BiUnity. “I’m just like ‘No, still bi. And no, still poly.’ I wasn’t expecting the public hostility and disapproval. For us, it’s a continual, ongoing, day-to-day coming out. And honestly, it can be very tiring.”
The Myths and the Men
That people have questions about bisexuality, or even question it, isn’t entirely surprising. In 2005, researchers at Northwestern University released a widely publicized study that called male bisexuality into question based on the genital responses that bisexual men had to a range of pornography. But last summer, other researchers from Northwestern reported that the recruitment strategies and methods in that study had been flawed and that they had new evidence that bisexual men do, in fact, exist. Though this follow-up, like the 2005 study, merited a write-up in the New York Times, overall it received far less attention than the original, which had already done its damage in a mainstream media landscape where bisexuality struggles.
“When it comes to bisexual men, it’s more complicated because it’s a bit more acceptable in our society to be a bisexual or lesbian woman than to be a bisexual or gay male,” says Liza Linder, a therapist at Mazzoni Center. “Men are supposed to be macho and tough. And unfortunately, gay men are portrayed to be the opposite of macho and tough—which we know isn’t true, but that’s how they’re often portrayed in the media. Middle America thinks they don’t know any gay people because when they turn on the TV that’s what they think gay people are. If that’s all you’re exposed to, that’s what you think being gay is.”
Tyler DeSouza doesn’t need the media to tell him that being a bisexual male makes people uncomfortable. He sees it among gay and straight friends, and especially notices a discrepancy among straight women who readily accept gay males. “I think their gay friends can be an escape from straight men pursuing them in social situations,” says DeSouza, the vice president of Suddenly Fem, a fashion house for cross-dressers and transwomen in Philly. “I notice they seem to be uncomfortable with a bi guy since he does not fit this mold, especially if he is more masculine in demeanor. I think they have been conditioned to want guys all gay or straight, even though, in our society, it is hot for a girl to make out with a girl.”
DeSouza, for one, has found a way around the constant questions and tutorials. “I find the less explanation I give about being bi, and the more pithy and confident I am in the delivery, the more it actually is not a problem,” he says.
Online Dating: Truth or Dare?
Like a lot of people in their late 20s, “Hillary” considered the website OkCupid a natural option for finding dates. Although bubbly and a natural people person, she has found herself isolated in the suburbs; a debilitating case of fibromyalgia allows her to travel into the city only rarely. And while she has connected online with BiUnity, she hasn’t been able to attend any meetings.
She quickly found, however, that identifying as a bisexual woman on her profile—especially one with long blond hair and a generous amount of eye makeup—was going to be a problem. Married couples assumed she was interested in three-ways, straight men believed they were uniquely equipped to change her mind, and—what really bothered her—women (namely lesbians) never contacted her.
“At first I said I was bi, but I got all these creeps,” says Hillary, who has now decided to identify as a lesbian on the site. “All I was getting were men saying ‘All you need is a good deep dicking.’ You’d be surprised how often I’ve heard this. I’m a vegetarian pacifist, so I try not to kill them. For me, bisexuality is that I fall in love with a person, not a sex.”
For now, as she manages her disease, Hillary lives with her parents, who are supportive and accepting. But even in her progressive family, Hillary’s sexuality didn’t come without its share of questions.
“My mom is always trying to protect me—like most parents,” says Hillary. “But she said, ‘It would have been easier if you just said you were gay because I can understand that, I can grasp that. Why can’t you just choose one?’ And I said, ‘But it doesn’t work that way—I can’t just choose one.’”
The Kids Are All Right
Linda A. Hawkins is a counselor and research coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she works with LGBT youth. She previously worked as a counselor at the Attic Youth Center and sees some gold at the end of this rainbow. But even in her field, she says, there were sometimes issues among colleagues when she disclosed her bisexuality (she’s in a long-term committed relationship with a woman—who, yes, also initially had some reservations about dating someone who’s bisexual).
But what Hawkins—and nearly every other person interviewed for this article—has found is that the kids, or at least the younger generation, seem to have a lot fewer hang-ups about being bi, gay, gender non-conforming or whatever.
“I see more acceptance from youth,” she says. “I’ve worked with young people for the last 15 years in Philadelphia, and I can tell that the flexibility around gender and sexuality has expanded. And that leads to kids being more accepting of themselves, of others and of bisexuality.”