The Unicorn Is Real: Defying the Myth of Bisexuality

by Lauren Emily Whalen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday September 12, 2021
Originally published on July 16, 2021

Margaret Cho
Margaret Cho  (Source:Albert Sanchez)

"I have dogs and cats, so maybe that sets me up for bisexuality very well," says Margaret Cho. Over the years, the legendary comedian, actor, and author has publicly come out as both lesbian and straight before realizing she's still on the LGBTQ spectrum. She's just not "L" or "G."

Cho isn't alone. Statistically, over half of the LGBTQ population, including a majority of the transgender and nonbinary community, self-identifies as bisexual. Celebrities have jumped on the bi bandwagon, from LGBTQ icons Alan Cumming and Lady Gaga to "In the Heights" actress Stephanie Beatriz, who portrayed a bisexual cop on the hit NBC series "Brooklyn 99."

Scripted bi characters are getting screen time, too, such as Gen-Z Ava (Hannah Einbender) on HBO Max's summer hit "Hacks," who comes out to her employer (Jean Smart) in the second episode. In April, actor Ronen Rubinstein, who plays a queer paramedic on Fox's "9-1-1: Lone Star," has also publicly come out as bisexual.

"It feels so good to talk about it [and] be comfortable with it," Rubinstein said in an interview with NBC News. To close out Pride Month, "Jennifer's Body" actress Megan Fox posted a selfie on Instagram, displaying her rainbow manicure with the caption: "Putting the B in #LGBTQIA for over two decades."


Most recently, Irish rugby player Jack Dunne came out as bi, expressing that although he has been out privately for four or five years, he made his sexual identity public because "maybe there are some kids across the country who could do with a role model." Even IKEA Canada got into the bisexual spirit with a specially designed (and much-internet maligned) love seat as part of its Pride campaign.

And yet, the bi community still struggles to be understood.

"What do unicorns and bisexuals have in common? Well... we simply do not exist," writes activist Alex Wilcock in an article for the Australian nonprofit One Woman Project. ("Unicorn hunting," according to a feature in Business Insider, refers to a straight couple seeking a bisexual woman who may be attracted to them both and is considered "something of a cliché in the poly community.") Wilcock describes instances in pop culture, citing examples from "Orange Is the New Black" and "Will and Grace," where bisexuality is dismissed or lampooned, as well as the lack of bisexual representation in media. According to Wilcock, this leads to more significant problems: "[T]he biphobia of our media reflects a much bigger problem, and that is the biphobia of our society."

PFLAG National Learning & Inclusion Coordinator Mackenzie Harte, who previously led bisexual-focused work for GLAAD, sums up many of these issues in one statement: "Whether it is the assumption that I am simply too scared to 'just be gay'—I'm not—or that I'm somehow 'not queer enough'—I am—that I could never be satisfied and happy in a monogamous relationship—I could—or that I shouldn't complain when bi+ people are excluded—I should—I often find myself in the position of defending my right to be who I am."

What may present as innocent misunderstandings can have devastating consequences for bi people, including higher poverty rates, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. Through increased visibility and education, this can change. Though bisexuality and the bi population is not a monolith, what's clear is this: The bisexual community is and has always been here. They are and have always been queer.

Defining Sexuality: Why Words Matter




PFLAG's glossary defines bisexuality as the capacity for attraction to genders similar to and different from one's own: a definition that dates back to activist Robyn Ochs and 1990's "Bisexual Manifesto," and differs from that of pansexual (the capacity to form enduring attractions to any and all genders) or abrosexual (experiencing different levels of sexuality throughout one's life). Another way of looking at the difference: "Bisexual" can mean attraction to more than one gender, and "pansexual" can mean attraction to all genders, or attraction regardless of gender.

According to PFLAG, pansexuality includes all genders, whereas bisexuality can favor some genders over others. Harte prefers "bisexual+" or "the bisexual+ umbrella" to include all people attracted to multiple genders. They clarify that some bi individuals also identify as queer (Cho is one), but not all. "RuPaul's Drag Race" judge Michelle Visage spent most of Pride Month posting more than a dozen flags to her Instagram account to help demystify the language around sexuality and gender.

However, overfocusing on labels is part of the problem.

"I've found that ... trying to find concrete differences between labels like bisexual and pansexual takes a ton of time and effort and ultimately leads nowhere," Harte says. "It most often comes down to what an individual person is comfortable with."

Experts Weigh In

Experts Weigh In
Jeremy Jabbour  

Jeremy Jabbour, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northwestern University, has contributed to several academic studies on bisexuality—for reasons both professional and personal.

"Being a queer man, I've always been pretty curious about how or why I ended up being queer," Jabbour says. "I just see this topic as a huge scientific question that lacks satisfying answers—how does sexual orientation work?"

Jabbour was the lead author on "Robust Evidence for Bisexual Orientation Among Men," a 2020 study that explores whether men's orientations go beyond homosexual and heterosexual, and its results "support the view that male sexual orientation contains a range, from heterosexuality, to bisexuality, to homosexuality." Jabbour sees the definition of bisexuality as both "inherently fluid" and complex.

Both Jabbour and Sarah Melancon have also studied the history of bisexuality, or at least when people became aware of its existence. Melancon, a Ph.D. in sociology and certified sexologist at SexToyCollective.com, says she wanted to write her dissertation on "what we would now call queer sexual identities," adding that, ironically, "I was told I would never get a job in that, and now it's what everyone wants to talk about!"

Melancon learned in her research that "while what we call same-sex behaviors have lasted as long as humans have existed," she says, the concept of sexual identity is relatively new. Sigmund Freud hinted at bisexuality with his term "amphigenic invert." And in the late 1800s, Melancon says: "We started seeing the idea that who you're attracted to and spending time with means something about you. Interestingly, the term 'homosexual' was coined before 'heterosexual,' taking heterosexuality for granted."

In the early 20th century, queer communities began to surface in major cities. According to Melancon, by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, "people were starting to value this part of themselves, and science was slowly starting to develop more affirmative terms" for those who weren't heterosexual.

The Kinsey Scale, though controversial at the time, greatly contributed to the idea of sexuality as a spectrum, says Melancon. As the 1970s and '80s progressed, however, acceptance of bisexual individuals in both the straight and queer communities wasn't forthcoming. "People started saying, 'Hey, I don't fit into either/or,'" Melancon says. "And the general vibe was, nobody wants them."

Even though 1969's Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade was organized by Brenda Howard, a bisexual woman, bi participation in Pride events remains controversial. In 1993, Lani Ka'ahumanu was the only openly bisexual person invited to speak at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, which Howard helped organize. Alleged bi erasure has occurred as recently as this year when Bi Pride UK pulled out of London Pride celebrations amid concerns of racism.

Breaking Bisexual Bias

Breaking Bisexual Bias
Margaret Cho  (Source: Jen Rosenstein)

Coming out publicly was a no-brainer for Cho, who recently appeared—as a queer character—
alongside Iliza Shlesinger in the Netflix movie "Good on Paper" and whose podcast "The Margaret Cho—Mortal Minority" discusses historical crimes that laid the groundwork for the recent onslaught of anti-Asian violence, with Asian performers, journalists, and advocates in its second season.

"My work as a comedian is really about personal journey and problems and relationships," Cho says. Having grown up in San Francisco with parents who owned a gay bookstore, she says, "queerness has always been a really important part of my existence."

Cho's parents, though supportive, don't understand their daughter's bisexuality.

In a recent video interview commemorating the 10th anniversary of the It Gets Better Project, the comedian spoke about her mom and dad, who were baffled when she came out to them as bi. "They don't mind lesbian, [but] they have a real problem with queerness and bisexuality and don't believe it exists," she reflected via phone. "They are of the mindset that you use bisexuality as a way to delay the truth of being gay, that you have to be one or the other. They're not of the mind that you can be both."

Cho has spoken about biphobia in the LGBTQ community. "It's coming from inside the house!" she jokes in the video and expands on this during our interview. "The assumption that's outdated [is] because you're oppressed in one area, you can't possibly be an oppressor in others."




The definition itself can lead to confusion. Many believe "bi" connotes the traditional male-female binary, says Harte, leading to assumptions that bisexuality is exclusionary. Harte, who is nonbinary and bisexual, has felt this misconception firsthand: "You hear little jokes or asides made at the expense of bi+ people, including myself, and they are often made in ostensibly LGBTQ+ spaces, which makes me feel like a space that should be safe for me is not."

Various studies have also revealed gay mens' responses to bisexual partners. Dr. Eric Schrimshaw, of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, referenced his academic paper in an interview with bi.org, stating that "some of the men don't feel the need to advertise their sexuality to their male partners. They allow men to assume they're gay. Others use their bisexuality and identity as a selling point because bisexual men are fetishized by many gay men, perceived as being particularly masculine, sexy, or attractive."

In another study published by Plos One, the authors acknowledge that "prior research on social attitudes toward sexual minority individuals typically aggregate 'lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals' into a single 'LGB' or 'sexual minority' category, despite the distinct anti-bisexual prejudices faced by bisexual individuals. Among these, bisexuality is often trivialized as an illegitimate and transitional 'phase' in which the person is assumed to be on their way to a 'valid' identity."




As with any orientation, bisexual individuals need not have specific sexual experiences or relationships, or any at all, to identify as such. Based on individual presentation, however, bisexual people can face misorientation, which GLAAD defines as "incorrect identification based on previous or current relationship status." Jabbour, who is queer, encounters this in his own relationship. "My partner and I constantly get coded as a gay couple, but usually the only time he might conceivably get coded as bisexual is when he brings up his ex-girlfriend," he says. "And even then, he could still get coded as gay!"

Assumptions about relationships and gender can lead to bisexual erasure or the existence of bisexuality questioned or outright dismissed. Melancon adds that another problem is members of the LGBTQ community "feeling like bisexual people are trying to claim oppression they don't have." However, she doesn't think oppression should be competitive and encourages skeptics to "recognize and value the unique stories people go through."

Biphobia, invisibility, and erasure can lead to permanent damage. According to a Los Angeles Times article, many bi people are afraid to come out "because they [don't] want to deal with misconceptions that bisexuals [are] indecisive or incapable of monogamy." A 2019 study confirms this, reporting that bisexual people are far less likely to be out "to the important people in their lives." This fear can lead to feelings of isolation, which can lead to worse. Besides the above-mentioned higher rates of poverty and violence, the bisexual community is statistically more vulnerable to problems with mental health, substance use, and sexual health issues due in part to stigma and discrimination, and bisexual women are more likely to experience social stress. In February 2021, the CDC published a study stating that gay and bisexual individuals were at greater risk for severe COVID-19.

Light at the End of the Rainbow Tunnel

Light at the End of the Rainbow Tunnel
Sarah Melancon  

Melancon credits the internet with greater visibility. "People get to create their own content [and] be out there as themselves, rather than rely on Hollywood," she says, adding that amateur porn shows people on the sexual identity spectrum that they're not alone. "You go on Pornhub, and you see all these different categories. There's this awareness that diversity in sexuality exists and that it's more normal in a statistical sense. It's harder, factually, to say I'm the only one in the world."

Both Jabbour and Cho see hope in the next generation.

"I think that younger people now are identifying more as queer and genderfluid," says Cho. "There's many people who are saying, 'I don't identify as anything,' which I think is great too." Cho thinks that "labels can help us politically when we're put in opposition to the mainstream heterosexual community" and encourages LGBTQ individuals to think outside the box and have fun with it. "I would love to bring back 'fruit'!" she says. "I love old gayness like fruit, Mary, references to Phyllis Schafly, dumb things rooted in a time and place."

Jabbour speculates about what increased acceptance will do for the LGBTQ acronym. "I wonder whether we're going to see less and less young people identifying these ways. For example, 'Do I need to build an identity around being gay if I could just say that I mostly like men and no one would question me?'" he says. This could go even further than identifiers. "Maybe the idea of a[n] LGBTQ community will just be a historical holdover at some point."

Education both within and beyond the LGBTQ community is one of the best ways to move forward. Besides GLAAD (which celebrates #BiWeek) and PFLAG, organizations like The American Institute of Bisexuality and the Bisexual Resource Center offer glossaries, articles on bi representation in media, and other resources. (The latter's homepage assures its visitors, "You're in the right place.")

Keeping an open mind is also vital. "I think that actively listening to bi+ people when they talk about their experiences is important," says Harte. "And to do that, LGBTQ+ spaces need to be explicitly open to bi+ people."

Cho feels the LGBTQ community already has a leg up in this regard: "[U]ltimately, we're at an advantage because we know what it means to be othered." Harte urges everyone to take a "people-first" approach and remember that every bisexual person has their own intersectional identities and means of expression.

"Know that you will never be able to know every single bi+ person perfectly," they advise. "Join me in finding comfort and joy in that openness."

Lauren Emily Whalen is a writer and performer living in Chicago. Her second novel, "TWO WINTERS," a queer YA retelling of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," will be released by Bold Strokes Books in September 2021.

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