What Keeps Bi Men in the Closet?

By Zachary Zane

August 23, 2016



Photo credit: Unsplash/Dan Dimmock

Dr. Eric Schrimshaw, of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, published an academic paper in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, which explored why bisexually behaving men don't disclose their same-sex sexual behavior to their female partners, family members, and friends. 

His findings revealed some unexpected reasons for bisexual nondisclosure and illustrated some of the specific challenges bisexual men face regarding stigma. I had the pleasure to speak to Dr. Schrimshaw to get a better sense of the results from his study and to find out what the far-reaching implications of his research are. 

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ZACHARY ZANE: Hello Eric. First, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I want to say I loved your article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior because it's crucial there's more research that focuses on the specific challenges and needs of bisexual men. Additionally, your research revealed some new information on stigma and reasons for nondisclosure among bisexual men. But before we get too much further, could you tell me a little bit about what your research question was and what it was you were attempting to find out?

Dr. Eric Schrimshaw: My colleagues and I here at Columbia had a large federally funded study from the National Institute of Health (NIH), and its primary goal was looking at potential sexual risk behavior among bisexual men and their female partners, in essence, researching how bisexual men act as a bridge population for spreading HIV to women. But I approached the research from a different angle that matched my interests. For a long time, I've looked at the coming out process [for queer men], how relationships are formed, the benefits of disclosing sexual identity, and the potential health consequences of concealment and stigma. So I approached the research from that angle.

We conducted a large number of qualitative interviews with [203] men. In addition to many topics that we had as the research team, we also allow the men, themselves, to raise interesting questions and about their life and their experiences [being closeted]. One of the topics that we were very interested in was the issue of disclosure, concealment, and stigma.

What was the framework for your research, and how were you planning to build on it?

Dr. ES: There has been very little research on why bisexual men choose to come out relative to the amount of research that's been conducted for gay men. That, in itself, is an important extension of the current cannon. The few studies that have been conducted [specifically on bisexual men] have reached two conclusions. Some argue that nondisclosure is mainly an issue of identity confusion. I think this perpetuates a larger stereotype when it comes to bisexual men. There is this perception that bisexuality is temporary and that bi men are simply confused. In some extreme cases, many [individuals] think bisexual men don't even exist. But that's just one side of the argument. We were interested in the other. We asked ourselves, was it possible that issues of stigma and biphobia were contributing to why bisexual men are unable or unwilling to be open about their sexuality?

What did your results reveal?

Dr. ES: When we asked men directly why they hadn't told their female partners, family members, and friends, the men told us clearly that the expectation of various stigmatizing responses is why they remained closeted. It wasn't a matter of identity confusion.

They thought their female partners, in particular, would have strong emotional reactions to finding out that they were bisexual and that she would terminate the relationship immediately, file for divorce, move out, or throw him out. They thought that family and friends would also have homophobic, stigmatizing reactions. Either directly verbalizing their disapproval of homosexuality or outing him to others as bisexual and having those issues publicized. Because the men in our study wanted to maintain the public's view of them as heterosexual because they are in these relationships with women, they didn't want to disclose their sexuality.

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Additionally, the men in the study thought their female partners would have the most negative reactions. Even the men who came from a conservative or religious background thought the response from their female partner would be worse than their parents. While they thought that their parents would react disappointed, many didn't think they would be rejected for the rest of their life. This wasn't the case for female partners. For friends, they thought they might lose some of their [straight male] friendships, or their relationship with them would be a little awkward at times, but in the end, they thought they'd get more accepting reactions from their straight friends than from their female partners.

And did you look at non-disclosure of bisexual men with gay same-sex partners?

Dr. ES: We have the data and are currently working on it. 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.

I know your study consisted of an ethnically diverse sample: Men of all races, educations, socioeconomic background, and religions.   

Dr. ES: Yes, we were able to recruit a nice large and ethnically diverse sample. One of the benefits of doing research in New York City.

I noticed that with the diverse sample, you were able to dispel the notion of the "down-low" (DL), HIV-spreading black man: A racist bisexual trope in society. You did this by showing that men who have sex with men and women (MSMW), regardless of race, often don't disclose their bisexual behavior. Could you discuss this more in detail?

Dr. ES: Past literature notes that African American and Latino men are more likely to identify as bisexual rather than gay and disclose their sexuality less. In our study, we didn't find that, in part, because all of our men had not disclosed, but one of the things we did find was that White and Asian men articulated the same reasons and concerns about stigma and nondisclosure as Latino and African American men. We had an Italian American [participant] with a Catholic background who lives in Brooklyn speak about how the church, his parents, and friends would not accept his bisexuality. We had a number of Indian and Filipino [men] who spoke about their traditional immigrant family and how same-sex sexuality is not accepted in their culture. We saw the same thing for Orthodox Jewish men too. These are the same stories that we hear from African American and Latino men. So we found that the reasons chosen for not disclosing were similar across the four racial groups.

Do you think there is a divide between emotional and physical attraction? It seemed like many of the men in your study were physically attracted to men but not emotionally attracted. There was a lot of talk of, "It's just sex."

Dr. ES: We were just looking at a subgroup of bisexual men who were having relationships with female partners [and not disclosing their bisexual behavior]. So in our population, we saw that the majority of men tend to have purely sexual interactions with their male partners. But if we were looking at a general sample of bisexual men, we would expect to see more emotional relationships. Still, even within our group, there were some men who wished they could be more open and affectionate with their male partners but were concerned about being discovered.

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So it sounds like it was a combination. Some of the bisexual men were only physically attracted to men, and others, who might have been emotionally attracted to men, didn't act on those feelings because of internalized homophobia or fear of others finding out.

Dr. ES: Exactly.

One of the things you mentioned was a limitation of this study is that you had to volunteer in order to be in the study. You mentioned in your paper that this means these men were open about their sexuality, but I would also argue these men are less confused. Because I know when I was "confused" or in denial, I would never have signed up for a study about me having sex with both men and women. Could that confound the findings, explaining why none of the men were uncertain about their bisexuality?

Dr. ES: I will agree that I didn't see a lot of identity confusion in the men we sampled. Our men, for the most part, even though many identified to themselves as heterosexual, were very clear that they enjoyed sex with men and planned to continue having sex with men. So, no, as you mention, there wasn't a lot of identity confusion. That may be in part related to the fact that they had to meet in person with an interviewer to discuss these issues. That being said, this is a much less open sample than previous studies because we focused on men whose female partners did not know about their bisexual behavior. So every person in this study was to some degree closeted and had a publicly heterosexual identity.

Last question. How do we decrease the stigma for bisexual men in different sex-relationships?

Dr. ES: I think there are a number of things. One, the research community has done a disservice to bisexual men by tending to lump bisexual and gay men together in studies instead of looking at the two groups separately. I'm convinced through this study and various others that while we have a number of commonalities, including stigma, we need to be addressing the individual needs and concerns of gay and bisexual men separately. I think this will increase awareness, both in the research world and the larger LGBTI community.

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But at the same time, I also understand a lot of the driving factors that lead heterosexuals to say, "There aren't any 'real' bisexual men." They don't know that their friends and family members are bisexual because of the tendency for bi men to keep their sexuality on the DL, especially if they're in a relationship with a female partner. So just as the National Coming Out Day has been a real benefit for gay and lesbians to raise public awareness and disprove stereotypes, bisexuals need to do this as well. Bisexual men, women, and celebrities can increase the awareness of bisexuality by coming out and letting others know of their bisexual identity even if they are in a male-female relationship. I think that, too, does a lot of good for raising awareness and dispelling stereotypes.

Yes, it's so important that as many bisexuals come out as often and repeatedly as they can if they are safe to do so.

Dr. ES: Absolutely.


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