How the AIDS Pandemic Fed Biphobia

By Talia Squires

December 01, 2020



Photo credit: Unsplash/Giacomo Carra

Most bi people are all-too-familiar with bi erasure and biphobia.

It’s something that many bi folks have experienced from within both the straight and gay communities. We have all heard that bi just means “by the way, I’m gay” or seen a woman declare with pride that she is a “gold star” lesbian. Even some bi celebrities — like Amber Rose, who said that she would not date a bi man, and Megan Fox, who said she would not date another bi woman — have contributed to the stigma that exists around bisexuality. What’s more, a number of surveys have shown that a significant percentage of women are unwilling to date men who have had sex with other men.

There was a time, not so long ago, when society was less accepting of all queer people. Same-sex relationships were considered a public health hazard and a sign of mental illness, and portrayals of queer people were censored in popular media — queer characters could only appear if they were heavily “coded” and were often depicted as villains. Now, of course, things have changed, and we are seeing wider acceptance of queer people. So why does it seem like bi folks are lagging behind in gaining that acceptance? And why are we facing prejudice from within the queer community itself?

We are still inundated with negative messages about bi folks. In popular media, queer representation started to improve in the late 90s and early 2000s with shows like Modern Family working hard to represent happy gay and lesbian families and lifestyles. Yet GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” report has noted the many negative stereotypes of bi people that remain visible in contemporary television, where bi characters are still frequently presented as untrustworthy, manipulative, sex-obsessed villains.

A group of friends wearing clothing with slogans, consoling eachother during a march

But why are bi people often seen as untrustworthy?

There are a lot of reasons — and on World AIDS Day, it seems fitting to discuss one of the big ones, which dates back to the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In the early 1980s, a strange new disease began to spread within the United States (though it’s now believed that the earliest recorded cases were in Norway in the 60s). This disease was mostly found among gay men and intravenous drug users — otherwise healthy men who were falling ill with rare conditions generally only seen in those who are immunocompromised. People didn’t know why it was happening; they were afraid and unsure of how it was spread, but before much else was known of the disease, the press were calling it “GRID” (gay-related immunodeficiency). This led to the phenomenon being seen as a “gay disease” that was risking the health of the general population, and also made the illness easy for many straight people to ignore, because they could pretend that it was irrelevant to their own lives. There was an enormous backlash against the gay community, and rampant homophobia delayed research and treatment advances that might have significantly slowed or prevented the spread of what soon became known as HIV.

People holding a banner that reads AIDS we need research not hysteria
Image/The Smithsonian

In time, it became understood that HIV was transmitted sexually or through blood, and it also started appearing in populations other than gay men. Some of this spread was from blood transfusions, some through intravenous drug use, and some through sexual contact. This is when the myth of the bi man as a disease vector began to circulate; it was supposed that bi men were getting HIV from gay men, and then spreading it to the straight community. It was also assumed that these men would lie about their same-sex encounters and were thus intentionally putting innocent straight women at risk.

This narrative, which was completely unsubstantiated by any research, was circulated widely by the press. It especially stigmatized black bi men, claiming that they were practicing unsafe sex on the “DL” (down low), cheating with other men, and bringing the disease home to their female partners. This assumption plays on (and reinforces) the idea that bi people — and bi men in particular — are hypersexual, unable to control their sexual desires, fundamentally dishonest, and unclean. And because HIV was characterized as a “gay” disease, there was very little real discussion of transmission in strictly heterosexual settings.

Black and white image of a large crowd of people marching holding banners and waving and smiling.
Photo/The UC San Francisco AIDS Program of San Francisco General Hospital

Even now, many narratives about the spread of HIV focus on sexual transmission and completely ignore the high rates among intravenous drug users. Though most people now know that your orientation does not make you biologically more susceptible to HIV, and that there is no moral judgment associated with the disease, the discourse around it remains very sex-focused.

After decades of hearing that bi people (especially men) are disease vectors or “bridges”, it isn’t hard to guess why so many people see bisexuals as scary, untrustworthy, or undateable. Many, when asked, can’t explain why they wouldn’t date a bi person, saying “it’s just a preference”. It is, of course, a preference, but it is a preference informed by decades of being told that your bi partner will inevitably cheat on you and bring illness into your home.

The secondary effect of this fear and mistrust is that it has served to drive bi men deeper into the closet. Overcoming prejudices against same-sex affection is difficult enough; add to that the fear that you are endangering your opposite-sex partners, and bi men feel doubly damned. This prejudice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing more men to hide their bisexuality and making them seem less trustworthy when their partners discover the truth.

In the aforementioned Megan Fox interview, I thought it was particularly telling that Fox said she wouldn’t date a bi woman because they slept with men, and men are “dirty”. I don’t know what exactly she meant by this, but I think it certainly harkens back to this idea that male sex partners are potentially unsafe or unclean, and that sleeping with people of both sexes makes you less safe as a partner. I’d hate to hear what she thinks of the cleanliness of men who sleep with men. The way she expresses it is different from the sensational headlines of yesteryear, but the sentiment lingers.

Although HIV continues to spread, a lot has changed since those early scary days of “GRID”. New treatments have made it possible for those with HIV to live longer, healthier lives; with modern therapies that reduce viral loads enough to make the chance of transmission effectively zero. Education campaigns have done a lot to destigmatize those living with the virus and helped to promote safer sex practices. Finally, PrEP has helped to further protect those that are at higher risk of contracting HIV.

A young white guy is sitting on his couch looking at the pill in his hand holding a glass of water in the other.

Nevertheless, we need to continue the effort to educate and combat this disease. Comprehensive sex education, needle exchanges, and affordable access to condoms, PrEP, and medical care — along with other preventative, proactive approaches — can further reduce the number of those infected with HIV.

Yet as we battle the disease itself, we must also continue to battle the stigma it has created. The lingering narrative that bi people are dangerous is something that needs to change now. I’m happy to say that some things have gotten better, that we are seeing better media representation in shows like Schitt's Creek, that more bi men are willing to come out, and that we are seeing more out bi people in general. But over and over again, I keep hearing people say that they’d be “uncomfortable” dating a bi person, or that they’d just prefer not to date a bi person.

We need to confront that discomfort, because much of it is still based on unflattering and inaccurate ideas of what bisexuality is — and of who bisexuals are.