February 20, 2015

Among LGBT Americans, bisexuals stand out when it comes to identity, acceptance

Over the past few years, much of the energy aimed at securing rights and benefits for LGBT adults has focused on same-sex marriage. But often absent from discussions about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues more broadly are the views and experiences of bisexual adults – the “B” in LGBT.

While some high-profile music artists and actors have talked about their bisexuality, openly bisexual adults are becoming increasingly more visible in other aspects of public life. This week, Kate Brown became the first openly bisexual governor in the U.S. when she was sworn in to her new role in Oregon. Brown follows in the footsteps of Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who became the first openly bisexual member of Congress when she took office in 2013.

Bisexuals Less Likely to Say Sexual Orientation is Important to Their IdentityCompared with gay men and lesbians, bisexuals have a different perspective on their sexual orientation and a distinct set of experiences, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 1,200 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults. Bisexuals are much less likely than gay men and lesbians to say that their sexual orientation is an important part of who they are. Only 20% of bisexuals say being bisexual is extremely or very important to their overall identity. The shares of gay men (48%) and lesbians (50%) who say the same about their sexual orientations are much higher. (Due to the small number of transgender adults in the survey, it’s not possible to break out their responses. However, they are included in the total LGBT shares reported here.)

Bisexuals are also much less likely than gay men or lesbians to have “come out” to the important people in their life. Only 28% of bisexuals say all or most of the important people in their life know they are bisexual. By comparison, 77% of gay men and 71% of lesbians say the important people in their life know about their sexual orientation.

Relatively few bisexuals report that they have experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation. When we asked about six specific types of incidents – ranging from being subjected to slurs and jokes (the most common experience among all LGBT respondents) to being treated unfairly by an employer (the least common), bisexuals were significantly less likely than gay men or lesbians to have experienced most of them.

There’s also a sense among all LGBT adults that society is more accepting of bisexual women than it is of gay men, lesbians or bisexual men. A third of LGBT adults say there is a lot of acceptance for bisexual women. Fewer (25%) say there’s a lot of acceptance for lesbian women, and fewer still see a lot of acceptance for gay men (15%) and bisexual men (8%). Transgender adults are viewed as being the least accepted by society (3% say there’s lot of acceptance for this group).

One way in which bisexuals are similar to gay men and lesbians is in their own journey to self-awareness about their sexual orientation. The survey asked LGBT respondents at what point in their life they had first thought they might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; at what age they knew for sure; and at what age they first told someone about their sexual orientation. Bisexuals experienced these milestones at nearly the same ages as lesbians and gay men. The median age when bisexuals report first thinking that they might be bisexual is 13. The median age at which they say they knew for sure that they were bisexual is 17, and they were a median age of 20 when they first told someone about their sexual orientation.

It’s difficult to determine the size and composition of the LGBT population, especially using a survey-based approach that relies on the willingness of individuals to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity. Some researchers have estimated that between 3.5% and 5% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Most Bisexuals in Relationships Have Partners of the Opposite SexIn our 2013 LGBT survey, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,197 self-identified LGBT adults, 479 (or 40%) of the respondents were bisexual. And among the bisexuals who were surveyed, a large majority (73%) were women; only 27% were men.

Bisexuals are much more likely than gay men or lesbians to be married, and most have a spouse of the opposite sex. Roughly a third (32%) of the bisexual women in our survey were married, as were 23% of bisexual men. By comparison, only 4% of gay men and 6% of lesbians were legally married.

Looking more broadly at LGBT adults who are in committed relationships (whether married or not), almost all gay men (98%) and lesbians (99%) are in relationships with same-sex partners. Only 9% of bisexuals have same-sex partners; fully 84% are involved with someone of the opposite sex.

Topics: Gay Marriage and Homosexuality, Gender

  1. Photo of Kim Parker

    is director of social trends research at Pew Research Center.

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18 Comments

  1. Anders Sven Narain4 days ago

    My question is why do bisexual women prefer men over woman about 90% of the time, as I can based in on the research? Do they think men are better partners than women? Is it the stigma of being with a woman and the social acceptance of being with a man? Or is it that there are more dating opportunities and availability for men.

    I know pretty much the primary reason why bi/pan women are more accepted in straight society is because they are considered a fantasy for straight men. Though, when I talk to lesbians about bisexual women, I see a strong disgust in their face. One told me that they can’t be trusted and that they’ll leave you for a man in an instant.

    Reply
  2. Daren Weeks5 months ago

    Most swinger couples wives are bisexual
    And that’s a beautiful thing

    Reply
  3. Beverley Davis8 months ago

    I’m heterosexual but I honestly feel for bisexual people because gay says you don’t exist (I just read a report from a psychologist who basically said that bis really are gay and won’t be happy until they accept it)and straights are afraid you are going to eventually leave them and become gay. I don’t know how this can be resolved because it seems a lot of compromising is needed and not many people want to share their loved one with other people. I imagine a bisexual woman would not want to share her straight boyfriend with another woman….or a gay man would also be leery of permitting their bi boyfriend see a woman at all.
    How does one resolve this?

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    1. Thomas Beynon8 months ago

      I would imagine most bisexual are monogamous and so only being with one gender is about as concerning as a heterosexual only being with someone of 1 body type or personality – so not big a problem.

      As a bisexual, in the past year I’m now open to polyamorous relationships (but have no experience) and this isn’t due to a ‘need’ to have multiple gendered partners but because I feel my capacity for love is greater than my capacity for jealousy. I would happily be in a monogamous relationship though I would like to be intimate with a guy for once.

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  4. Hayley11 months ago

    I feel like I never came out. No matter how many times I say it, no one really accepts that I’m Bi. I’m a woman living with a man, so either I want to seem edgy or I’m using him to fit in. Or i’m just bi-curious (That word is so degrading). I’m also genderfluid. But my boyfriend is straight and my family is religious so I don’t have much say in how I dress or how I act. I feel like a straight man forced to dress in drag every day. No one ever tells you that if you date straight guys they won’t be attracted to you if you decide you want to cut your hair like a boy and wear a shirt and tie. Its such a stupid thing to get hung up on, and every day I have to look in the mirror and hear my boyfriend saying, “I’m not attracted to guys. I want you to look like a girl. That’s not girly enough. Why do you have to dress like that?” Or my parents telling me, “I will not have a daughter that dresses like a dyke. You’re not a boy, you’re a girl.” Being Bi is very much like being genderfluid. People do treat you better. As long as you hide half of your identity. And you never really get acceptance because whenever you act on those feelings people get angry as if you’re just trying to be difficult. Because you have the ability to act normal. But you’re not.

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  5. Kay Gamble1 year ago

    This survey and especially the interpretation of the data by this article is monosexist.

    “Bisexuals are much less likely than gay men and lesbians to say that their sexual orientation is an important part of who they are.”

    As Lynnette has stated, this question was about how important being LGBT is for bisexual people, not how important being bisexual (and the bi community) is. Bisexual people are generally not welcome in LGBT spaces, we face out right biphobia there just like in straight spaces and we are often forced to be closeted there. One facet of monosexism is that bisexual people do not receive the same level of social support as LG people. Stress levels in bisexual women and lesbians are about the same in rural communities. When they move to big cities, lesbians generally experience reductions in stress and bi women do not. This is because lesbians are supported and validated by the LG community (and liberal-minded people in general), while bisexuals are not.

    Additionally, gay and lesbian identities are more visible in our culture. It contains ideas about what gay and lesbians people act like, think like, what their culture is comprised of, what they dress like, what music they like, events they attend, cultural scripts for the politicization of their identities, etc. Even though this can sometimes be problematic, gay men and lesbians have something to identify with aside from the orientation itself. They have a way to make themselves visible and feel like they are a part of a community that they share a culture with. Bisexual people don’t generally have that (we are still in the early phases of building it). That means that for many bi people, sexual orientation is just that, especially since we are discouraged from recognizing (and organizing around it) our own oppression by the LG community.

    “Bisexuals are also much less likely than gay men or lesbians to have “come out” to the important people in their life.”

    This doesn’t mean bisexual people are more privileged/less oppressed. If anything it means the opposite. Being in the closet is not a privileged experience. It is something people do when they don’t have the privilege to come out due to being pushed back in (via erasure, forced re-labeling), facing discrimination and not having the resources or social support to leave a discriminatory or dangerous situation. Also note that bisexual people may be in the closet as straight or gay.

    Additionally, the idea of “passing privilege” is so problematic is difficult to cover in a comment. It is used to construct the most privileged group (white, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, monosexual cis-men) in the LGBT community as being the most oppressed, the most deserving of resources, the most important and knowledgeable voices in the community, etc. When less privileged groups experience invisibility and erasure due to intersections with other forms of oppression, that is not any kind of privilege. It is more oppression. When a black woman is assumed to be straight due to racism, that is not privilege. When two lesbians are assumed to be close female friends instead of a couple due to sexism, that is not privilege. When a trans man or non-binary trans person and their male lover are assumed to be a straight couple, that is cissexism, not privilege. When bi women are assumed to be straight and bi people in general gay or straight depending on their partner, that is monosexism, not privilege. Bisexual people experience intersectional oppression (heterosexism and monosexism). This makes our oppression more complicated. It doesn’t make us less oppressed. It means in any given situation we either experience heterosexism/homophobia, or we experience monosexism/biphobia or, most often, we experience both at the same time.

    The idea of “passing privilege” hurts people in positions of less privilege twice. It does so once outright because only relatively privileged experiences of homphobia are counted (or given more weight). It does so again because people in positions of less privilege (trans people, people of color, women, lower-class people, etc) are disproportionately bisexual and people in positions of more privilege (cis people, white people, men, upper-class people) are more likely to identify as homosexual. The dialog about who has privilege and who is oppressed within the LGBT community is controlled by the people with the most privilege and not surprisingly constructs them as the most oppressed because their privilege is invisible to them. This is just one of the ways that the privilege and oppression systems from the dominant, straight community are enforced in the LGBT community.

    “Relatively few bisexuals report that they have experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation.”

    In other words, less bisexual people are out of the closet. Once again, this is not a measure of privilege. To have a true comparison to gay and lesbian people, you would need to discard all the people in both groups who aren’t out, then compensate for the proportionate difference in the size of those groups. You would also need to break them down by category- out at work, out to family, out to close friends, etc. And then you would also need to realize that when bisexual people are in other sex relationships, we are often re-categorized as straight by the people around us. Once again, not privilege. Experiencing oppression differently is not the same as not experiencing it. This survey, like so many, is set up to measure the ways that LG people experience oppression but not the ways that B people do.

    Previous studies have shown that straight people have more hostile attitudes toward bisexual people than gay and lesbian people, so the idea that bisexual people who are out at work would face less discrimination is very questionable to me. I don’t know how this pans out statistically, but I know that in some instances, bisexual people are less likely to get promotions or be given positions with more responsibility at work because monosexual people think we are unreliable and immature due to our bisexual identity. We may face less outright discrimination from family members because they assume we are going through a phase, seeking attention, confused about our sexuality, etc – this is biphobia, not privilege.

    “There’s also a sense among all LGBT adults that society is more accepting of bisexual women than it is of gay men, lesbians or bisexual men.”

    Previous studies show that of LGB people, bisexual women have least social support (this is especially true for bi women in relationships with men), the most health issues, the most anxiety and depression, the least financial resources, the highest rape rates, among the highest domestic violence rates (tied with gay men). Does this sound like acceptance to you?

    The “acceptance” of bi women that people talk about is actually just fetishism, objectification and hypersexualisation. It is also often erasure via the idea is that bisexual women are straight women who are willing to preform “lesbianism” for straight male attention/pleasure (thus when coming out, we get asked about threesomes, people assume we are coming on to them, men assume that they don’t need consent because we are “sexually available” to them, lesbians won’t date or will have insecurities in relationships with us because we’ll “leave for a men”, etc). This “acceptance” is a huge contributor to the aforementioned rape and domestic violence rates. It is the intersection of heterosexism, monosexism and sexism. It is not real acceptance and not privilege.

    Reply
  6. G. Kelly1 year ago

    When every other research study shows that bisexual health and youth homelessness show a clear health pattern associated in every other disadvantaged population with discrimination and isolation, what’s the result? Conclude that these results mean we aren’t experiencing either. That’s how bi erasure and invisibility becomes a reality in LGbT society.

    Reply
  7. Cary Costello1 year ago

    There’s a narrative about bisexual (and pansexual) people that this Pew study unfortunately seems to support: that bisexual people don’t suffer much discrimination, that they don’t center bisexual identity in their lives as gay men and lesbians center their sexual identities, that they are much less likely to come out and publicly own their bi identities, and that they take the easy way out by choosing relationships with people of the “opposite sex” (as are 84% of the bi-identified people in this large study).

    Here’s what I think is really going on here. Relatively few people who are attracted to those of the same gender are classic “Kinsey 6s” who have never been attracted to someone of a different gender. That is, a majority of the people who identify as lesbians or gay men have at some point in their lives found someone who does not share their gender attractive. But they still call themselves gay men and lesbians–sometimes for political or community-affiliative reasons, but often because they are in a relationship with someone of the same gender, and that is central to their lives.

    So who then calls themselves bisexual (or pansexual)? Well, in this study, 73% of the people so identifying are women, and 84% of the people so identifying are in a committed partnership or marriage with a person of the “opposite sex.” What I believe this shows is that same-sex attraction is not particularly central to the lives of people in male/female committed relationships. It shows the power of homophobia: people who have same-sex attractions tend not to confess that far and wide unless being in a same-sex relationship forces the question. And it shows the way that social perceptions of bisexuality are strongly gendered–thought of as “kind of hot” in women, but disapproved of in men. The result? Bisexual women are much more likely to come out than bisexual men when in other-gender relationships. And bisexual and pansexual people in same-sex relationships are more likely to come out–but use the labels of lesbian and gay rather than bi, to signify commitment to their partner.

    So,I believe the conclusion of this study–that bisexual people enjoy much more acceptance, care less about LGBT identity, and are less likely to be out–actually reflects the experience of bi/pansexual women in committed relationships with men, rather than the broad experience of all people who have at some point found themselves attracted to people of the same and of another gender.

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    1. Bruce1 year ago

      Great analysis!

      Reply
    2. Hayley11 months ago

      Thank you for saying this. No one ever talks about how bi women feel in the relationships they have with men. I’m in love with a guy. Didn’t plan on it, I even fought it for a while because I felt like I would be missing out on a huge part of my life by not exploring more relationships with women. And there is that regret. But we can’t help who we fall in love with. And I think that the pressure to fit in in one’s community, whether that be the Gay, Lesbian, or Straight community, holds people back from acting on the feelings they may have for people they are not supposed to be attracted to.

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    3. Anders Sven Narain4 days ago

      Which probably proves that bisexual women who prefer men don’t want to have much to do with lesbians or the LGBT community.

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  8. Tom1 year ago

    I also heard a speech by a bisexual group that said bisexuals have much higher suicide rates than gays or lesbians. Also there is much much much less funding for bisexual groups compared to gay and lesbian groups.

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  9. Lynnette MFadzen1 year ago

    We (The Bisexual Community) take issue with the interpretation of these stats. The question was asked if we felt being part of the LGBT community was important to us. As a general rule we are excluded from said community. So I know feeling part of the”LGBT” community means very little to me. However my bisexuality and my Bisexual Community mean a great deal to me.. And I am not alone. This was somehow interpreted as we don’t care about our bisexual orientation.
    Also, since a large amount of us do not dare risk loss of our gay or lesbian community because of bigotry towards bisexuals by coming out so we do not receive slurs and hate directly unless we are. And then we certainly do. A lot. And when we are closeted we have to endure listening to the biphobia around us and are unable to speak out.
    In short you need to include bisexual researchers when talking about us.
    And if you need to find us just ask one of our bisexual organizations to help you. Because we aren’t going to be in LGBT centers or gay bars or whatever place you are going to find us.

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    1. Mike10 months ago

      Thank you. Well said. We the B in the four letter acronym get all the flak now. FACT…was at pride last night and it was like my wife and I had the plague….or better yet…AIDS in 1980.

      Reply
  10. Briana Sandy1 year ago

    I’m both Bisexual and Transgender, now legally female, formerly a male bisexual. I know of the discrimination and the closeted invisible ginormous bisexual community. Trust me.

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    1. Mary1 year ago

      You will be remembered in our prayers.
      I am sorry that you experienced discrimination.
      You are a child of God. You are not an accident and your dignity is not determined by your sexual identity. I cannot imagine the pain you have or are suffering.
      Peace.

      Reply
  11. Lynnette MFadzen1 year ago

    We do not feel included in the LGBT community as a rule anyway. So I would say being LGBT is not that important to me. Being bisexual is. Yet you interpret that is it is not. I am having issues with your interpretation of these results.

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    1. barbie tankersley1 year ago

      I think the article is great and I thank you for putting these stats together. Yes, truly the LGBT community is not really a community that bisexual people feel included or comfortable in from personal experience – but that is only a small part of the article.

      Reply