By Neesha Schnepf and Nicole Speer
It’s Pride month, a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people come together to both celebrate their lives and reject aspects of society that would have them live in shame or despair.
As Boulder’s openly bisexual city councilperson (Dr. Nicole Speer; she), and a bisexual Boulder resident and research scientist at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics (Dr. Neesha Schnepf; they/she), we have had to work to feel that we belong in our city’s straight or gay communities. Considering that the Mother of Pride is a bisexual woman (Brenda Howard), it seems especially fitting to start off the month by shedding some light on the most common, yet often most overlooked, LGB identity.
Bisexual simply means being sexually and romantically attracted to people of both genders. Newer terms add some nuance to this: Pansexuals are attracted to people regardless of their gender (which can provide more space for non-binary or transgender people) and those using the reclaimed label “queer” simply are not heterosexual. Many of us use these terms interchangeably to describe ourselves, and you may see “bi+” showing up as a catch-all identity.
Of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, the majority (52%) are bisexual. Nationally, this majority is increasing with younger generations. Locally, according to Out Boulder staff, pansexual or bisexual are the most commonly reported identities of the youth attending Out Boulder County programs and services.
These statistics only include people who self-identify with these labels. Almost 10% of American men have admitted to having had same-sex sexual experiences and 15-20% of American women have admitted the same. Meanwhile, only 5.5% of American women and 2% of American men actually identify as bisexual.
Bi+ is also the most common sexuality of transgender people. For many of us bi+ folks, especially younger generations, being bi+ goes hand-in-hand with having a non-binary gender identity. When it comes to who we are, and who we love, gender just doesn’t matter very much. Because we live in a world where gender forms society’s main hierarchy and is the basis on which most people define their lives, some bi+ folks use gendered pronouns to try to assimilate even if we don’t consider gender a meaningful concept (e.g., the authors’ use of “she” pronouns).
Many people incorrectly assume that being bi+ precludes monogamy. Like straight/gay Americans, the overwhelming majority of bisexual people (85.5%) are monogamous. That said, of people who are polyamorous, most are bisexual/pansexual.
Bisexuals in society
Too gay for one category and not gay enough for the other, bisexual people often struggle to feel at home in straight society and gay communities. Bisexuals are far less likely to be out to close friends and family compared to gays/lesbians, and bisexuals often feel excluded from Pride events. Bisexuals also feel less optimistic about the state of LGB people in America.
This lack of community can lead to very serious health consequences for bi+ folks of all ages. Youth are especially vulnerable when bisexual erasure leaves them without role models to help them understand and appreciate their identities.
Only 5% of bi+ youth report being “very happy,” compared to 21% for gay/lesbian youth. Bi+ youth are at greater risk of harm from self and others than youth of other sexualities. Bi+ youth are far more likely to seriously consider suicide; 1 in 5 bi+ youth have attempted it. Bi+ youth are more likely to be bullied in schools and to be forced to have sex. Bi+ youth are also most likely to be homeless — a 2005 study found that 26% of bi+ youth experienced homelessness because of physical abuse inflicted by their parents, compared to 13% of gay/lesbian and 15% of heterosexual youth.
These numbers aren’t just statistics for us. They are a testament to what we’ve survived to reach adulthood, to what we’re still working to heal from. And they are a plea for what our local youth are enduring.
Boulder County overwhelmingly votes for politicians who support same-sex marriage, but it is still disturbingly common in our community for queer youth to be kicked out of their homes when they come out (or are accidentally outed) to their parents. Many of these youth are quickly assisted by local organizations like Out Boulder County and TGTHR (formerly known as Attention Homes), and are able to find safe shelter and supportive LGBT youth groups. Some end up with nowhere to go and live in their cars or in our public spaces.
Bi+ adults are much more likely than their gay/lesbian or straight counterparts to be living in poverty. Throughout the COVID pandemic, Out Boulder County has helped provide extra funds to LGBT folks struggling to make ends meet. About half of the people who received direct aid identified under the bi+ umbrella, and the majority of all grant recipients were using the funds to pay their rent or mortgage. Out Boulder County helped prevent many of our bi+ neighbors from becoming homeless, but likely some still slipped through.
Some of our county’s homeless are queer refugees from neighboring LGBT hate states. Queer and trans people hear about our progressive city, they see pictures of our businesses with rainbow flags, and they decide our county is a much better place for them to be. They may not know how stretched we already are to support our homeless population, or they may decide that risking tickets and jail time from our camping bans and parking laws is a safer risk than what they face back in Texas, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, etc.
Bi+ allyship 101
Bi+ allyship on a community scale is more complicated than simply mounting rainbows over Boulder. As individuals and as a community, there needs to be honest reflection on what constitutes genuine allyship versus lip service. In our experience, people who say they are our allies but enforce heteronormative policies and standards can be just as harmful as people who explicitly hold anti-LGBT views.
For instance, last fall the queer and trans community asked Boulder’s voters to support a change in our city’s occupancy code to allow us to legally live with our chosen family. A majority of Boulder city voters said no.
This vote hit close to home for many of us who are estranged from our biological family or for whom a traditional, heteronormative marriage/family is something we’ll never have. Actions speak louder than words, and for us bi+ folks living over-occupied, last year’s election showed that much of Boulder doesn’t yet understand the allyship needed for our LGBT communities.
The first step in being an ally is perhaps an easier lift than changing our city’s housing policies to be more responsive to the needs of the bi+ community: Respecting how we identify. There is never one “coming out” moment for bi+ people. We are always having to come out to people and explain that our identity may not be what they assume based on the apparent gender of our partner.
When someone tells you that they are bi/pan, this is not an invitation for you to ask them about their past dating or sexual experiences. It is not an invitation for you to assume, or judge, whether they are monogamous versus polyamorous. Is is not an invitation for you to start talking about your preferred pornography.
When someone tells you that they are bi/pan, it is an offering of trust and vulnerability. An appropriate response should respectfully match the context of the conversation.
None of us will ever be a perfect ally. But we can each commit to doing better to understand the diverse range of sexualities and genders in our community. We can work to notice the limits of our LGBT allyship so we can avoid doing more harm to some of our most vulnerable community members.
This Pride month, we hope that you will reflect on your allyship to bi+ folks and the greater LGBT community here in Boulder. For those of you who are already in this community, feel pride and joy in who you are, and remember Audre Lorde’s words, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence: It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Neesha Schnepf is research scientist at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics. Dr. Nicole Speer is a longtime Boulder resident and member of Boulder city council.