Bisexuality and mental health
For Bi Visibility Day, Jonathan shares how the stigma surrounding bisexuality has impacted his mental health.
Jonathan Andrews is a solicitor at Reed Smith and co-founder and co-chair of the London Bi Network, the UK's first-ever professional Bi Network.
My passion for ensuring that everyone can be open and honest about who they are stems from my personal experiences of bisexuality and mental health; and this Bi Visibility Day, I wanted to reflect on how these experiences have affected me throughout my life. It’s easy for me now to identify as, and speak openly about, being bi – but this wasn’t always the case.
"Where bisexuality was featured, it was almost always described as a person being ‘confused’ and, more often than not, the butt of a biphobic joke."
Looking back, I knew on one level that I was bi – or rather, since I wouldn’t have known the word then, not attracted exclusively to women – since I was about nine years old. By that age, I already knew that gay and lesbian people existed – although still in the last days of Section 28, I had schoolfriends who had same-sex parents and individuals were visible across media. Representation of bisexuality, however, was almost non-existent, and the prevailing consensus – that people were either straight or gay – erased bisexuality. Where bisexuality was featured, it was almost always described as a person being ‘confused’ and, more often than not, the butt of a biphobic joke – about, e.g. indecisiveness, or an assumption that bi people could not be monogamous and are attracted to everybody in the world (as ridiculous as suggesting every straight woman is attracted to every man than exists) – not an identity in its own right.
This lack of bi visibility meant that, although I was aware at a young age that I was attracted to men, I didn’t have the words to understand or express this. I knew the term ‘gay’ didn’t fit me, because I was still attracted to women; so, trying to fit best into the concepts I was aware of, I rationalised that I was straight. I still felt attraction towards men, but I assumed this was simply a matter of recognising they were good-looking, rather than actually being attracted to them.
"With the assumption that bisexuality was always a ‘phase’ still being common, I didn’t feel I could immediately be open about it."
It was only several years later, when I was a teenager, that I was properly exposed to bisexuality as a recognised concept – and I began to realise that this identity reflected who I was. But with the assumption that bisexuality was always a ‘phase’ still being common, I didn’t feel I could immediately be open about it. I was also worried that, if it was a phase, I’d then need to come out again – and not only would I appear inauthentic for saying I was bi when I wasn’t, I’d make it more difficult for other bi people to have their sexuality recognised.
As a result, I spent several years keeping being bi a secret, expect to very close friends and family. The result, although better than before I had internally accepted my sexuality, was not positive for my mental health. The strain of having to present a different face to the world than one I identified with internally was anxiety-inducing, and meant that, when answering questions about my personal life or significant others, I would always feel especially anxious, and like I had to be on-edge to ensure I didn’t ‘slip up’. The result was expending a lot of energy on hiding a facet of my identity – leaving less energy for, and distracting me from, other responsibilities.
"I realised that what I was experiencing wasn’t a phase - and that it had been my reality for as long as I’d really understood sexuality."
After a few years, however, I realised that what I was experiencing wasn’t a phase - and that it had been my reality for as long as I’d really understood sexuality – and felt more able to be open. The majority of people were accepting and understanding, and I felt able to be open about who I was, reducing stress and anxiety.
Naturally, there were some who, due to the prevalence of bi-erasure in society, didn’t quite understand – for example, assuming I was confused or ‘going through a phase’ and would soon decide between being straight or gay, or trying to label my sexuality based on percentages – but the positive response I had from most meant these assumptions didn’t have the same effect as they would have done before I was out.
"I hope that, this Bi Visibility Day, we are able to shine a light on the barriers faced by bi people – and the link between acceptance of bisexuality and mental health."
Now that I am open about who I am my mental wellbeing is in a much stronger place – although it’s important to remember that coming out isn’t a one-off, but a continuous process. I have, and continue to, come out over and over - first to myself; then, years later, to others; and now, to each new person I meet, all of whom will have different experience and understanding of what it means to be bi. This brings its own challenges, but these are far easier to face when you have the strength and stability to be open about who you are, and others who will back you up.
I hope that, this Bi Visibility Day, we are able to shine a light on the barriers faced by bi people – and the link between acceptance of bisexuality and mental health – and work together to address these. With Stonewall statistics year-on-year showing that the majority of bi people don’t feel comfortable to be out, I recognize that I have been luckier than many – and I hope that we can all work to ensure that every bi person can feel able to be open about who they are.
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