This article argues that bisexuality is undermined as a legitimate sexual identity via discourses that construct sexuality as a binary (heterosexual or homosexual) and stereotypes of bisexual men and women as unstable, undecided, or in denial of their 'true' sexuality. It examines the social and psychological consequences of these constructions and the role they play in coming to terms, and living, with a bisexual identity. Interviews with sixty Australian bisexual men and women revealed their significant difficulties coming to terms with a bisexual identity, including feelings of isolation and exclusion, and fears about revealing their bisexuality to others. This raises a number of issues about the impact of binary constructions of sexuality and stereotypes of bisexuals on the psychological and mental health of bisexual men and women.
Bisexuality is not a well-understood sexual identity. Instead, it has either been silenced in public discourses about sexuality, or when it has been made visible, is marred by stereotypes and misrepresentations that paint a misleading portrait of bisexual life. As a result, bisexuality is undermined as a valid sexual identity. This not only creates difficulties for those seeking information about bisexuality, but has significant consequences for those coming to terms with a bisexual identity, or coming out as bisexual (Fox, 1993; Weinberg, Williams & Pryor, 1994) including living with 'continued uncertainty' (Weinberg, Williams & Pryor, 1994) about the legitimacy of one's bisexual identity. The difficulties faced by those coming to terms with and coming out as bisexual have a negative impact upon their psychological and mental health (Heath, 2005; Jorm, Korten, Rodgers, Jacomb & Christensen, 2002).
Contemporary discourses of sexuality construct sexual identity as a binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality. According to this binary these sexual categories are mutually exclusive. Sexuality is then seen as an 'either/or' choice: one is either heterosexual or homosexual, or 'straight or gay'. Viewing sexuality as a dichotomy greatly hinders our understandings about the diversity of human sexuality (Paul, 1985, p. 46); but it also contributes to a lack of understanding about bisexuality in the wider world and the destabilisation of bisexuality as an identity category. The binary also works to silence the voices of bisexual people.
The heterosexual/homosexual binary is also reflected in popular understandings that people are either 'straight or gay'. For example, celebrities who begin same-sex relationships are assumed to have 'turned gay': actresses Lindsay Lohan and Cynthia Nixon both had significant heterosexual histories prior to their current same-sex relationships. Regardless of how they actually identify, the fact they might be bisexual is never considered. Furthermore, bisexual men and women who form long-term relationships with either sex are often assumed to be heterosexual if their partner is of the opposite sex or gay/lesbian if their partner is of the same sex (Barker, Bowes-Catton, Iantaffi, Cassidy & Brewer, 2008, p. 145; George, 1993, p. 104). The understanding that people are either straight or gay has meant some bisexuals have also identified substantial pressure to 'choose a side' (Paul, 1984, p. 30; Weinberg, Williams & Pryor, 1994, p. 145).
Such binary discourses send a powerful cultural message that bisexuality is neither a valid nor acceptable sexual identity, and these constructions contribute to the oppression of bisexual men and women (James, 1996, p. 220). Assuming that people are either straight or gay silences the reality of bisexual lives and further reifies the already-powerful binary between heterosexual and homosexual. Furthermore, it creates enormous difficulties for those seeking validation for a sexuality that is neither of these and can lead to isolation, distress and self-doubt (Paul, 1985, p. …