Let’s Talk About Bi+Health and Identity: A Community Conversation

Aisha N. Davis, Manager of Policy & Advocacy; Kelly Rice, Program Manager, Intensive Community Care Services; Andie Baker, VP of the Center for Education, Research, & Advocacy

We are closing out Bi+ Health Month with a conversation about bi+ identity with some Howard Brown’s own bi+ staff members. This conversation between three bi+ identified individuals reflects the individuals’ opinions, not that of Howard Brown.

When starting the conversation, I reached out to a few people who I knew identified as bi+. As a larger organization that specializes in LGBTQ healthcare, discussing bi+ health concerns is not uncommon or uncharted, so we discussed a few topics that are related both to our work as an organization and our experience as bi+ people more generally. Below is an excerpt of four topics that stood out the most.

Aisha Davis: Working at Howard Brown means we are really uniquely and squarely situated in an LGBTQ healthcare space, so all of our work, in one way or another, is related to health outcomes, social determinants of health, and community health in general. For me, this has meant that I’ve learned more about what bi+ health looks like outside of my own personal health, or that of bi+ friends of mine. Have you seen any specific bi+ health concerns during your work in this area?

Kelly Rice: The primary concerns that I have encountered in working with members of the bi+ community at Howard Brown Health have been in the area of social health. Many members of the older adult bi+ community have shared how the lack of visibility and acceptance in queer spaces decreases their participation in community events and increases their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, many older bi+ individuals continue to experience harassment and discrimination based on their identities, which impact their access to care, services, and support.

Andie Baker: Research shows that bi+ people often face strikingly poor health outcomes compared to their lesbian and gay counterparts. While disparities in cancer, mental health, sexual assault and other health areas are known, there are big gaps in research to better understand the realities of bi+ people. That’s true of fluid and intersecting identities in general. TGNC people and people of color make up large portions of the bi+ community. I think what’s exciting about bi+ research is that if done well, research can help us understand the intersections of biphobia, racism and transphobia and importantly, the ways that bi+ people are already doing to cope with these stressors.

AD: It sounds like there are gaps that exist in some of the information we have – or at least there are some limitations in what we know and have access to, as it relates to bi+ health. I know we have a lot of data and information on our queer community and their health needs, but I wonder if there might be more work we should do – or do differently, to reach the bi+ community. Do you find that the data and research around LGBTQ health gloss over bi+ issues?

AB: Too much LGBTQ research and programming groups combine bi+ people with gay and lesbian health issues without acknowledging differences. We are lucky in Chicago to work with great researchers focused on bisexual health such as Lauren Beach and Brian Feinstein at Northwestern University and Wendy Bostwick at Chicago, who joined Howard Brown staff for a discussion on bi+ health research for Bisexual Health Awareness Month.  Howard Brown serves over 9,700 bisexual and queer identified people across our clinical network, so I think we have a huge opportunity to better understand the needs of bi+ people in Chicago.

KR: LGBTQ is the term used to identify the queer community in most research settings. However, that specific term encompasses several heterogeneous communities. Much of the research I have reviewed on LGBTQ health tends to present data in one of two ways. The first is provide data on the “LGBTQ” community, but does not provide discrete data on the many subpopulations, including the bi+ population. The second is to compare “LGBTQ” subjects with “heterosexual” subjects. The second approach is highly problematic, as it does not distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity. The outcomes from these types of studies may not be providing useful data to assist in identifying and intervening on bi+ issues.

AD: It’s interesting that the data seems to create this “grey area” for bi+ people. I say interesting because, personally, I’ve had moments where I felt like I was straddling straight and queer spaces – like I was halfway in and out of both, so I never felt wholly in one or the other. As I’ve gotten older and unlearned a lot of negative assumptions about b+ people, I feel more comfortably situated in the queer community. However, I’m still very aware of biphobia – especially internalized biphobia that many of us learn growing up and wrestling with the language of coming out, or even just introducing ourselves to new people in both straight and queer spaces. Have there been times where you felt like “coming out” as bi+ would affect how you were seen in queer spaces?

KR: Growing up as a bi+ individual, I felt intense stigma regarding my identity in both “straight” and “lgbt” spaces. I made the choice to not publicly identify my sexual orientation and I would allow others to make assumptions about who I was. The stigma and derogatory comments that I would hear led to feeling quite isolated. As queer began to be used by many members in our community, I began to explore that term and have found the word queer to be the best identifier that is available for me to use in sharing who I am as an individual. As a younger person, I was very concerned about how identifying as bi+ would impact how people would view and interact with me. Through my experience at Howard Brown Health, as well as the current political/societal climate, it has become clear to me that bi and queer visibility is crucial to working towards eliminating the health and social disparities that exist within our communities.

AB: I definitely had more negative experiences when coming out fifteen years ago. For me, being bi+/queer in LGBTQ spaces has meant that people make assumptions about my identity. I’m excited that this many younger people have this figured out. For this reason, I think it can be especially powerful when queer spaces are intentionally inclusive of bi+ identities.

AD: Hmmm… Knowing all of this, and how we all had those uncomfortable moments in our stories, I’m inspired to figure out ways to prevent this discomfort where we can. We have a lot of connections in community and access to resources to create and cultivate spaces for our community. This leads me to one final question: how can queer spaces be more welcoming to bi+ identified people?

AB: I think creating welcoming spaces starts with an awareness that many bi+ people have had some negative experiences in LGBTQ spaces and start to ask questions about why. I am not sure I know the answer, but I think what’s exciting is that to create bi+ inclusive space means better understanding the intersections of identity.

KR: Visibility is one of the keys to making queer spaces feel more welcoming for bi+ identified people. When developing campaign ads or public facing messaging, organizations should explicitly focus the language and imaging to be inclusive of bi+ individuals. Conducting listening sessions with members of the bi+ community to identify specific needs and interests would be a great first step to creating more welcoming queer spaces. Additionally, there needs to be an increase in available activities and events that are developed and offered specifically to the bi+ community. Bi+ identified speakers and activists need to be highlighted in public spaces and events.

AD: These ideas sound like a great start – thanks so much for sharing, y’all! I really appreciate the conversation and hope to continue and expand our work around bi+ health more in the future!

Although Bi+ Health Month is coming to a close, Howard Brown’s dedication to the bi+ community is doing everything but waning. As we learn more and more from community, we hope to cultivate spaces and conversations that will improve the health outcomes of every sexual orientation and gender identity within our very diverse community.

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