How to support a bisexual person

Being bisexual in a society which doesn’t understand or accept bisexuality is difficult.  When bisexual people look for help and information, they often don’t find what they need.  Organisations like BiNet USA and The Bisexual Index do a great job of providing online information, and there are local bisexual groups in many larger urban areas.  In general though, bisexual people are poorly served compared to gay and lesbian people.  It’s common, for example, for there to be relatively few bisexual-specific resources available at LGBT centres.  This increases the importance of well-informed support from individuals who know a bisexual person.

You might be reading this because a friend or relative has come out as bisexual to you.  If so, you are doing a great service to that person by exploring how you can help them.  Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn about bisexuality and why it’s hard to be bisexual

Before anything else, educate yourself about bisexuality.  Understanding bisexuality and the challenges bisexuals face in our society will enable you to appreciate why support for bisexual people is so vitally important.

Life is hard for bisexuals because society doesn’t generally acknowledge bisexuality as a real and legitimate sexual orientation.  I’ve written before about the commonly held misguided beliefs about bisexuality which are so hurtful for bisexual people.  Learn why the myths and stereotypes are wrong.

Here are some key facts about bisexuality in a nutshell.  Bisexuality is a real, common and enduring sexual orientation.  Bisexuals comprise the largest group within the LGBT community.  Bisexuality is not a phase or a stepping stone to being gay or straight. Bisexuals are no more greedy, libidinous or non-monogamous than anyone else.

2) Be encouraging and positive

Being open about being bisexual is a major achievement.  In order to come out, bisexual people have to overcome fear and accept that they will be exposed to prejudice.  In short, it takes real guts to come out as bisexual.  Celebrate that achievement.  Affirm and recognise their bisexuality. Let them know that you appreciate how hard it was to be open about it. Praise them generously for their courage in coming out and being themselves.

3) Show an interest, but be respectful

Being curious about someone’s bisexuality is understandable, and showing that you are interested can be a helpful way of demonstrating that you care and don’t see bisexuality as something that’s outside the boundaries of polite conversation.  Limit your curiosity though, in exactly the same way you would if you were talking about any other personal topic.  The fact that someone is bisexual doesn’t mean they’ll be happy to be asked intimate questions about sex or sexual preferences, for example.

Asking about a person’s experience of bisexuality, such as how they developed a sense of identity around it, and what kind of problems they have encountered, shows that you are sensitive to their wellbeing and would like to understand and know them better.  If they don’t want to talk about those things, then respect that too.

4) Don’t assume or suggest that a bisexual person is really gay or straight

When someone says they are bisexual, assume that they’re telling the truth.  While it’s true that some gay and lesbian people initially say they’re bisexual in an attempt to lessen the extent of homophobia they might suffer, this phenomenon has nothing to do with the experience of bisexual people.  Similarly, don’t assume that they’re really straight, and are going through some kind of bisexual phase.

I know from personal experience how much it hurts when people have questioned my bisexuality. The first person I came out to as a teenager told me I was a confused straight person.  The second person I came out to told me I was gay.  Both were wrong, but their lack of acceptance affected me deeply, and I went back into the closet for many years.

It’s just not respectful to tell someone that they don’t know their own mind or experience.  Bisexual people have to pluck up a lot of courage to come out, as they know that many people don’t believe that bisexuality really exists.  Show bisexual people the respect and admiration they deserve, and believe what they’re telling you!

5) Don’t suggest they limit themselves to heterosexual relationships

Sometimes people suggest that a bisexual person should choose to have relationships only with opposite sex partners in order to avoid prejudice directed at same sex relationships.  The problem with this approach is that it validates society’s hostility to bisexuality by encouraging bisexuals to suppress part of their sexuality.  The best way for a bisexual person to be happy is for them to feel free to have relationships with whoever they want, not to deny part of themselves.

Remember a bisexual person has no choice about who they are attracted to, just like a gay or straight person has no choice about who they are attracted to.

6) Challenge biphobia and homophobia when you encounter it

If you can, whenever you hear comments and beliefs which put down bisexuals or homosexuals, challenge them. Politely let the speaker know that you find what they are saying unacceptable.  Do this even when you’re not in the company of a bisexual person.

Try to challenge beliefs and assumptions in yourself and others that there are only straight people and gay people.  For example, when you see a same-sex couple holding hands in the street, consider that one or both people may be bisexual.  Notice how often the term ‘gay and lesbian’ is used without including ‘bisexual’.  Try to include ‘bisexual’ when you talk about a relevant matter. Changing this kind of understanding creates space and awareness in your mind and the minds of others for bisexual people.

7) Let them know you are there to support them long-term

Having an ally, someone who sticks up for you, who understands bisexuality, who’s there to help, makes a huge difference to any bisexual person.   Let them know that they can talk to you if they have a problem relating to their bisexuality. Bisexual people face an ongoing battle against biphobia and misunderstanding.  Being open and available, should a sympathetic ear be needed, is a great service.