The topic of bisexuality can still be taboo, said Sarah Jen, an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas.
In the United States, 1.8% of people over the age of 18 are bisexual, while 1.7% report being gay or lesbian. And up to 11% say they are attracted to other genders without claiming to be “bisexual,” according to Jen’s research article, "Bisexual Lives and Aging in Context: A Cross-National Comparison of the United Kingdom and the United States."
So why are so many people attracted to multiple genders while not claiming to be bisexual?
Jen said a few factors impact these decisions, such as cultural meanings, history, terminology and lack of support. Over a one-year period, she studied the history of bisexual identities. She interviewed bisexual women 60 years or older and found this population felt disconnected to the LGBTQ+ community and had a lack of support.
“Bisexual men and women tend to see that there’s no entrance to the LGBTQ+ community, so it can leave people thinking like there’s no safe space — no space that’s dedicated to them or their experiences,” Jen said.
This leaves many LGBTQ+ students lacking a sexually accepting support system. Alexis Johnson, a junior English major from Belleville, said she has been out as bisexual for a few years. She said although most people are respectful, wherever she goes someone always tells her bisexuality does not count. This has led her to feel invisible in the LGBTQ+ community, she said.
Jen’s article shows that this is partly due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and lesbian separatism. Her research also shows that bisexual men and women have higher rates of health disparities in both mental and physical health than any of her other participants.
Johnson said her ability to speak out when she needed help was hindered by people telling her bisexuality did not matter, which she said made her feel as if she didn’t count. She also said Jen’s study resonated with her.
“It makes me feel less alone,” Johnson said. “Even older people who have been out still openly experience mental and physical health issues that I experience every day.”
Jen's work is motivated by what she wants to see happen to her generation as well as supporting young LGBTQ+ people, she said.
Both Jen and Johnson said they hope to alleviate suffering for LGBTQ+ individuals by being part of a support network and getting people’s stories out into the world. Their message to LGBTQ+ individuals among all ages is not to suffer in silence while leaving emotional and physical wounds to grow.