Why it’s hard to identify as bisexual

Misconceptions and stereotypes about bisexuality are common in our society, and serve to delegitimate bisexuality as a valid sexual identity. That’s why so many people who are bisexual in orientation choose not to identify as such. There are many benefits to identifying as bisexual, but most people only do so when they’ve built enough confidence to assert their identity in spite of society’s prejudice.

With this in mind, I was struck by recent media coverage of British singer Duncan James’ switch in self-identification from bisexual to gay. James came out as bisexual in 2009, when he talked publicly about having had relationships with both men and women. A few years later, he revealed that he had started to identify as gay.

James is quite clear, however, that despite identifying as gay, he’s attracted to both men and women. In a 2014 interview, James said ‘I’m still attracted to women, I could still easily sleep with a woman. I haven’t in the last couple of years but I think if I meet a girl I could still have a relationship with her.’   On his decision to identify as gay, he explains, ‘I sleep with men, so that makes me gay. Regardless of whether I sleep with women or not, I’m still sleeping with men, so I’m gay.’

There are many reasons why Duncan James might prefer to identify as gay. When I was younger I identified as gay for a while, despite knowing I was bisexual. I had been stung by my early bisexual coming out experiences, in which people I cared about told me I was either a confused straight person or a closet homosexual. After that I felt people would understand and accept me better if I said I was gay. Perhaps the same thing is true for James. Biphobia is a powerful and destructive force, and it’s understandable to want to avoid it.

His words also suggest that he may have internalised the widespread but false belief that men who have any degree of same sex attraction can only be gay. Bisexuality is erased so effectively in our culture, especially for men, that bisexually-oriented people can feel that there’s no option to identify as bisexual, and that if they did, it wouldn’t be believed or accepted. Many bisexual people end up identifying as straight or gay.

Or it may be that James labels himself as a gay man who is also attracted to women, simply because that’s what feels right and makes sense to him.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that he feels comfortable with the label he has chosen. There are no rules around how we should self-identify, or indeed if we should self-identify at all. Labels are tools to help us understand ourselves better, and to enable us to find like-minded people with whom we can build relationships and a sense of community. Ideally, they also enable others to understand who we are and who we’re attracted to.

I’m sure it’s possible for someone to be happy identifying as a gay man while also being open about his attraction to women. It doesn’t seem the simplest choice, however, as gay is commonly understood to mean exclusively attracted to the same sex, which isn’t what James says he feels.

I think there’s a strong case for identifying as bisexual if you are bisexually-oriented. It’s true that as an out, bisexual-identified person you will be exposed to potential biphobia, but as I discussed last month in my post on the benefits of identifying as bisexual, you’ll also boost your self-esteem and confidence, connect to a community of other bisexual people, and change society by assertively challenging misguided ideas about bisexuality.

The more bisexual people come out, and the more bisexual activism influences public opinion, the more society will be forced to recognise bisexuality and make a place for it. We can hope, then, that in time it will be easier for all bisexually-oriented people to identify as bisexual.