When I started dating a woman for the first time after years of happily dating men, I had a go-to joke ready for when I was called upon to explain my sexual orientation to the confused: “I’m half gay. Only on my mom’s side of the family.”
I’m one of those people who’d always misguidedly “hated labels,” and I actively eschewed the term “bisexual” for years. I went on to date a number of trans guys, and in my mind, “bi” was also indicative of a gender binary I didn’t believe existed. I’ve since come to understand that actually, the “bi” implies attraction not to two genders, but to members of both one’s own and other genders, and that the bisexual umbrella includes a wide rainbow of labels connoting sexual fluidity. These days, I wear the “bisexual” label proudly.
Given all that struggle and growth, my current situation might come as a surprise: I’m in a committed, long-term relationship with a cisgender man who identifies as straight—just like a startling majority of other bisexual women.
Dan Savage once observed that “most adult bisexuals, for whatever reason, wind up in opposite-sex relationships.” Whether or not you’re a fan of Savage (or his sometimes dubious takes on bisexuality), the statistics support his assertion: The massive 2013 Pew Research LGBT Survey found 84 percent of self-identified bisexuals in committed relationships have a partner of the opposite sex, while only 9 percent are in same-sex relationships.
As someone who has spent way too much time convincing people—gay and straight alike—that my bisexuality actually exists, that “for whatever reason” modifier of Savage’s has long vexed me. What is the reason? Because on the surface, the fact that 84 percent of bisexuals eventually wind up in opposite-sex partnerships could appear to support the notion that bisexuality is, as people so often insist, actually either “just a phase” or a stepping-stone on the path to “full-blown gayness.” Knowing that wasn’t true, I decided to investigate.
Some of my initial suppositions included internalized homophobia, fear of community and family rejection, and concerns over physical safety. Although being bisexual doesn’t necessarily mean you’re equally attracted to multiple genders, it does seem feasible that these sorts of concerns could push a person with fluid attractions in the direction deemed more socially acceptable.
Although there’s a dearth of research into whether these factors are actually prompting bisexuals to choose relationships that appear “straight” to the outside world, there’s no shortage of research revealing that bisexuals live under uniquely intense pressures within the LGBTQ community: In addition to facing heightened risks for cancer, STIs, and heart disease, bisexuals also experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and are significantly more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors or attempt suicide than heterosexuals, gays, or lesbians. It isn’t difficult to imagine that for some, the promise of a bit more social currency and safety could be compelling reasons to seek out an opposite-sex partner, even unconsciously.
But there’s actually a much simpler, more obvious, and more likely explanation for the reason so many bisexuals wind up in opposite-sex partnerships: The odds fall enormously in their favor.
Americans have a well-documented tendency to drastically overestimate the percentage of queer folks among us. Polls have revealed that while most people believe LGBTQ people make up a full 23 percent of the population, but the number is actually closer to a scant 3.8 percent. So not only is it statistically more likely more likely that a bisexual person will wind up with a partner of the opposite sex; it’s equally likely that they’ll wind up with someone from the over 96 percent of the population who identifies as straight.
As anyone currently braving the world of dating knows, finding true love is no easy feat. There likely aren’t a ton of people on this planet—let alone within your geography or social circles—whose moral compass, sense of humor, Netflix addictions, dietary restrictions, and idiosyncrasies sync up with yours closely enough to make you want to hitch your wagon to them for the long-haul (and the internet is making us all even picker). Add to that the fact that due to persistent biphobia, a large number of gay men and lesbians still flat-out refuse to date bisexuals, and it becomes even more apparent that the deep ends of our relatively narrow dating pools are, for bisexuals, overwhelmingly populated by straight people—folks who, for bi women at least, are also more likely to boldly swim on over and ask us out.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that although plenty of bisexuals enjoy monogamy, not all people in committed relationships choose to be monogamous. Bisexuals in committed, opposite-gender relationships (including marriages) may very well have arrangements with their partners that allow them to enjoy secondary relationships with members of the same gender.
That said, we have to remember that even within monogamous opposite-sex relationships, if one or both parties identify as bisexual, that partnership doesn’t invalidate anyone’s bisexual identity—after all, we’d never tell a gay man practicing abstinence that he “wasn’t really gay” just because he wasn’t currently sleeping with men.
Ultimately, a relationship with a bisexual in it isn’t ever really “straight” anyway—by virtue of the fact that there’s at least one person in there queering the whole thing up. At our best, bisexuals are queer ambassadors: We’re out here injecting queer sensibilities into the straight world, one conversation and one relationship at a time.
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