I met Dr. Mimi Hoang—psychologist, author, co-founder of the Los Angeles Bi Task Force and the bisexual social group amBi, and self-proclaimed “professional bisexual”—at the Islands Restaurant in Manhattan Beach about a month ago. She’d recently returned from the Bisexual Roundtable at the White House, a meeting with bi leaders from throughout the country. The White House event was the first-ever meeting of its kind, and the proceedings were, for the most part, confidential. Despite the White House’s official silence, bi leaders were ecstatic just to have the audience and the spot on the official schedule.
This lack of a bi voice in the national conversation, up until now, is both confounding and infuriating. Bisexuals make up more than half of the roughly 8 million American LGBT people, but we are out at staggeringly lower rates than gays and lesbians. Bi men and women are four times as likely to have considered suicide than their gay and lesbian counterparts. In one particularly depressing 2003 UC-Davis study, people were asked to rate bi people in comparison to other ethnic, religious, and social groups. Bisexual men and bisexual women ranked only behind IV drug users. More recent studies have shown that these attitudes have not improved much.
I’m bi, I’ve written about it, and I was thrilled to hear what Dr. Hoang had to say. But I still tend not to discuss bi issues loudly in public spaces. I get tired of the questions from strangers, get tired of being told I don’t exist by straight and gay people alike, even eavesdroppers in restaurants. So I chose a table in the corner, away from the bar, ordered some nachos (which I learned is the worst food you can possibly order during an interview), and Dr. Hoang and I talked.
The Rumpus: Tell me about the meeting at the White House.
Dr. Mimi Hoang: This was really a landmark event for the bi community. It was organized by BiNet USA and Bisexual Resource Center (BRC), two of the leading bi organizations on the national level. The White House agreed to meet with us as a getting-to-know-you type of meeting, an introductory meeting where we could tell them what we are all about, who we are and what our needs are. This was really a great opportunity because the gay and lesbian communities have already had a chance to have government recognition. The transgender community as well. But the bisexual community, as a stand-alone community, is usually lumped together with the other groups. It doesn’t have its own voice or entity, so we really wanted this opportunity.
I was super-excited and pumped. I can’t say on the record who else attended, but it was extremely exciting even just to meet other leaders that have been doing the same work as me, if not longer, that in itself was a phenomenal experience. It was like a homecoming.
Rumpus: What else can you tell me?
Dr. Hoang: When the leaders of BRC and BiNet USA finally got the okay for the Roundtable, they selected the most prominent bi leaders around the country. They carefully chose leaders who’ve been doing community organizing for a long time—people who have done research, who have done talks, and who represent different specialty areas that were related to this meeting.
I am allowed to talk about my area, which was bisexual mental health. I shared important statistics about the disparities in mental health between bisexual people, gay and lesbian people, and straight people. We are just now beginning to see these disparities. People generally understand that LGBT people face minority stress (the phenomenon of increased stress levels among stigmatized minority groups), but I don’t know if they truly understand how much of this bisexual people face. There are still a lot of stereotypes that we only have it “half as bad” as gay and lesbian folks. But actually we get it sometimes worse than gays and lesbians, because we get negativity from straight and gay and lesbian communities, as well. There are studies that show higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidality, substance abuse issues, and internalized biphobia in bisexual people compared to gay and lesbian people. These are very important, compelling data to share. We as a community really need help; we’re struggling here. We have special needs compared to gay and lesbian folks. So we shared research, we also shared personalized stories from community members so that the message would come across about what life is like for someone like us on a daily basis. That was my piece. It was a truly exciting, proud moment.
Rumpus: Are you allowed to say who in the White House was there?
Dr. Hoang: I can only say that there were government officials who had interest in our community. There were also leaders of prominent LGBT organizations. As an aside, the reason why I can’t share more is because it was not an “on-the-record” meeting. There aren’t any official press releases coming out of the White House right now. But we’re hoping that from this meeting, there will be further talks, and that hopefully, some kind of policy changes or systemic changes will happen.
Rumpus: What sorts of policy changes are you hoping for?
Dr. Hoang: I think it’s so important that there is specialized training for people working in the mental health field with bisexual clients. They really need to understand what our community is like—what our difficulties and minority stresses look like—instead of lumping us together with gays and lesbians. Yes, some of our hardships are similar. We do have to come out, and we do face homophobia. However, sometimes we need to come out in a more complex way. We have to negotiate the same-sex side and the other-sex side, and sometimes that can take longer to do, and sometimes there can be more confusion in that process. And not only do we face homophobia but we also face biphobia. There are specific stereotypes and prejudices about being bisexual. Stereotypes that we are “confused,” “greedy” or “promiscuous,” or that we “can’t find love.” These are some of the issues that people who work in the mental health field need to understand.
I think one of the other recommendations that came out from my committee was to really encourage different agencies to provide specific programming and services so possibly more support groups or some kind of awareness event that really focuses on bisexuality, having bisexual speakers, etc. Having resources, materials or programs that really address us.
Rumpus: Here’s a question I always struggle to answer: some of my gay friends will say, “You have straight privilege and I don’t. You can pass.” From my perspective, that’s not true, because I always feel like I’m lying a little bit about myself. But on the other hand, if I’m in a job interview, I appear straight. It’s going to be a little different.
Dr. Hoang: Well, even though sometimes we may “pass” as straight, we are not straight. Sometimes we may behave in a way that looks like a straight person, but inside, we are always bisexual. So it’s a distorted perception of privilege. You start to compartmentalize your brain when you think that way, in “gay versus straight” terms. That creates confusion for a bisexual person because I think most of us don’t think in those terms. We think about love or dating or friendship which may sometimes fall on a straight spectrum, or on a gay spectrum, but it’s not like we split our bodies, like my left side is straight and my right side is gay. It’s a hard decision to ask yourself, Am I going to choose the “straight path,” or am I going to live life and see what happens? And that is the kind of decision a straight person doesn’t have to make.
Rumpus: What sort of mental health research exists on how that process is different for bi people versus gays and lesbians and straight people?
Dr. Hoang: There are studies about the phases of identity development, and when you look at gay and lesbian identity development stages, usually the end stages are where a person feels very proud. They call that the “pride” stage or the “identity integration” stage. With bi people, they found towards the end of their identity development that there tends to be a “identity maintenance/still fighting adversity” stage. There is not a calm, peaceful stage, or even a happy “here I am!” stage.
There’s always this work we are still doing, and it’s not work on who we’re attracted to, but it’s work on what we call ourselves to others. A lot of people do settle into their bisexual identity and they’re proud of that, but for a lot of others there’s still this unrest. So that, in and of itself, creates stress and anxiety, which can lead to depression. Some people may go back into hiding or drop labels altogether and may not affiliate themselves with a bi community anymore. Those are the times that I’m curious whether or not the mental health of that person will be strong, because now they’re going covert.
Rumpus: Right, it’s a question of always having to prove yourself. I’ve heard that’s even true for some bi people who go to see psychologists. Would you say that’s accurate?
Dr. Hoang: For some therapists that are untrained and inexperienced, yes. For example, I had a bi male friend who went to a straight female therapist and when he came out to her as bi, she kept telling him to get tested for STDs. The underlying message is “you’re sexually promiscuous and you’re going to spread HIV,” and that’s a common stereotype, that bi men are the carriers.
Rumpus: Here’s the problem I keep running into: what is a bisexual? For example, you look at lists of Ten Famous Bisexuals, and sometimes you’ll find Malcolm X. I mean, yes, it’s well documented that he slept with men, but does he count? Where do you draw the line between people’s right to self-identify and identifying them by activity or action?
Dr. Hoang: Well, that is a very good question and actually relates to my study on bi identity. There’s a lot of studies out there showing there is a bigger group of people that are attracted in a bisexual way, than there are behaving in a bisexual way, than there are people calling themselves bisexual. I thought maybe there was a correlation between that and internalized biphobia, that maybe someone who’s both inwardly bi and outwardly bi may have less internalized stigma than someone who’s disjointed in some way. And I did find a connection between the two. People who are inwardly and outwardly bisexual have less internalized biphobia.
If you ask the community, the community will say it’s based on attraction. It’s really not based on behavior because we may or may not be in a relationship; we may or may not be dating. Some people go through a dry spell!
It gets confusing because the community wants to look for celebrities and figures that will openly say they’re bi. Fortunately, there are some actors who are. Anna Paquin has come out. We’re all like,“Yay, Anna Paquin!” but there are a lot of historical figures that led a bisexual life but did not say they were bi. I think this leads to confusion. Deep down, the only way you know is by asking the person what their attraction is. Sometimes people will be married to someone of the other gender because that is what they feel they are supposed to do. So is that relationship truly a full-fledged relationship? I think you have to ask.
Rumpus: Tell me about starting amBi.
Dr. Hoang: BiNet LA was the bi social network for some time, but then it became inactive, so the only bi entity around was the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s discussion group, Bi-osphere. But I wanted to create something more than that. When I started amBi in 2006—which was originally spelled AMBI, for A Meeting of Bi Individuals—my goal was to create an out-and-about type of group. At some point we need to go out there and be bisexual in the world, because being bisexual is not something to be ashamed of. We should feel okay attending an event or going to a restaurant and being bi and talking about being bi. I really wanted amBi to be that. So almost all the events are in public venues and I think that has helped push a lot of people into being more comfortable with themselves publicly. So it can be a transition for a lot of bisexual community members to start in these discussion groups, and then get more comfortable and make their way to these amBi social events.
Rumpus: How about your work with the LA Bi Taskforce?
Dr. Hoang: That was originated by Jerry Mussari, who is a longtime activist from BiNet LA. In 2008, he wanted to develop a bi resource center, and of course I was supportive of that. I feel like the Los Angeles Bi Task Force has served as the “next level,” after amBi, for people who really want to be even more public. People who want to do education and really increase visibility. The mission has been three-pronged: education, advocacy, and cultural enrichment. For example, for Celebrate Bisexuality Day on September 23rd, every year we do a Bi Arts Festival.
Rumpus: Oh, I heard about that. My friend (and Rumpus contributor) MariNaomi did that this year.
Dr. Hoang: Great! LABTF’s Bi Arts Fest is a chance for bi artists to showcase their work and to express their creativity as a bisexual person. In that way, that’s always been my vision: that the bi community has choices. Diverse choices in groups and events, depending on what their current social needs are. Because this is available to gay and lesbians, and straight people. And bi community members shouldn’t have to compartmentalize their sexuality and only be openly bi one day a month. My vision is that there is a bisexual event you can go to every day of the week, because you are bisexual every day of the week.
Rumpus: That’s really one of my frustrations. Even now with amBi—I’m speaking personally here now—I feel like if you are gay or lesbian, you have a neighborhood to go to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It’s your neighborhood. Or at the very least, you have a bar. Whereas, as awesome as it is, we have a dinner once or twice a month. I’m so happy that this exists, but why don’t we have a neighborhood?
Dr. Hoang: We’re definitely making progress but we’re not there yet. LABTF will eventually get some type of physical office space, so that will further build a foundation. Even then that won’t solve everything, but it is another step.
Rumpus: That would be great.
Dr. Hoang: Hopefully, with all the different trainings that we’re doing, we can create more bi acceptance everywhere. When we can reach that stage of bi acceptance and bi equality, then really all of the sexual orientations would be equal. Then we won’t necessarily need a safe space anymore, because it would just be as normal to love men only or women only, versus to love men or women. It just won’t matter.
Rumpus: What sort of experiences have you had working with the trans community? And how has that informed your activism?
Dr. Hoang: I think we’re natural allies. We have a lot of members who are transgender. I think trans folks sometimes feel camaraderie with us because we are more open-minded with who we date and we both feel ostracized by the gay/lesbian communities. Just as trans people don’t quite fit into the socially-prescribed male or female categories, we don’t quite fit into the straight or gay categories, so we naturally understand each other. Some trans people identify as bi, too. Some bisexual people prefer dating trans people. We also have some trans members on the LABTF steering committee, and I work closely with them.
Rumpus: Solely discussing bi issues is just something that isn’t out there, except in the bi page of the Huffington Post, or on BiNet USA, or places that only people expressly looking for it are going to see it.
Dr. Hoang: Yeah, we’re not mainstream yet.
Rumpus: What are three things you’d want to tell the broader world?
Dr. Hoang: Three things? I do this in my talks where I break down the stereotypes of bisexuality and it comes down to three main themes. One is that bisexuality means we’re pathological in some way, that we can’t love, we’re greedy, we’re confused. Or, bisexuality is immoral; there is something sinful and dirty about who we are. Also, that bisexuality doesn’t exist, that we are in a phase and we’ll grow out of it. So what I always tell people is that we need to challenge these three ideas. So that would mean, firstly, that bisexuality is normal. There is nothing inherently deficient or dysfunctional about being bi. It is healthy. Second, bisexuality is natural. It’s really something that is innate, that we can’t help. It occurs in so many different cultures and eras. And thirdly, it’s real and it exists. It’s a legitimate and valid sexual orientation. This is the message that needs to be out there.
Rumpus: Current amBi president Ian Lawrence had a really powerful line in a recent lecture about bisexuality. He said ”One thing that is true about us is that we are a wonderful reflection of others insecurities.”
Dr. Hoang: Yes. That happens a lot. I think people are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We like to box things. Democrat or Republican? Black or White? Male or Female? We bust those categories and that is hard for people.
Rumpus: I used to work in politics, for a congresswoman in Palo Alto. I was closeted then and in charge of LGBT issues, which was an interesting experience. The thing that I learned while working in politics, especially in the Bush era—but even in this era—is that the simpler the message, the better. The more likely you are to reach people. Which is why I thought it was so incredible that you guys managed to get a White House meeting.
Dr. Hoang: Sound bites.
Rumpus: Yeah, sound bites.
Dr. Hoang: I’ve been presenting for close to fifteen years now and I want to help our community be more understood, so I do try to speak in terms that are accessible. Sometimes I say it’s like being ambidextrous, which is also a natural human characteristic. There is nothing dysfunctional about it. Perhaps some might say it’s a gift to be able to use your left and right hand, like being able to fall in love with a man or a woman. Why not see it as a gift?